Canelo: a new hope

Canelo: a new hope

The launch of digital imprint Canelo by Iain Millar, Michael Bhaskar and Nick Barreto comes at an interesting moment for the digital book business. For a long time now I have been wondering what this first generation of digitalists would do next, and this move provides one answer.

Canelo arrives at a time when e-book sales are an established part of most traditional publishers day to day business, but no longer overwhelming in how they are changing publishing patterns. And it also launches when there are serious doubts about the future of nearly all the big e-booksellers, from Blinkbox Books to Nook, as well as continuing confusion over the different business models that are coming to the fore, from the agency model to subscription.

Yet if the landscape is flattening, that does not mean it cannot also be volatile, and attractive. There remains great untapped potential, not just from doing e-books differently (or more quickly as Little, Brown has shown with its Broadchurch spin-offs), but from rethinking what publishing can do with the content and authors it has at its disposal. While, the sector has managed the shift in format - from print book to e-book - adroitly, attempts to take ‘the book’ out of all formats and re-imagine it afresh have generally floundered. And therein lies the problem for “digital publishers”. For all intents and purposes their role is less differentiated than it once was, with the way the market has developed making the digital prefix harder to justify.

The Canelo move is an attempt to give it meaning again. As Iain Millar says: “We first met as trade publishing was getting to grips with the ebook revolution. Now we’re here to prove that the industry can change further, and that the market for digital reading can continue to grow.” Or as Bhaskar puts it: “Everyone has talked about the future of publishing for year — it’s time we actually got on and made it happen.”

The important thing about Canelo is that it is digital-only. Millar told me last week that Canelo would be looking to publish between 100 and 150 titles in its first year—and would not be doing any print books, though it may consult and collaborate with other publishers on their digital strategies.

The challenge for Canelo (as it is for all small publishers) will be to balance out its need for a quick commercial return from a project, with the desire to be (and be seen to be) experimental and innovative. As it notes on its website, “Canelo offers cutting-edge digital marketing, industry-leading production values and highly competitive royalty rates and license terms.”

The lack of print will bring its own peculiar challenge, but also great discipline. It is worth noting that even our most innovative digitally-known publishers, Nosy Crow and Head of Zeus, have complemented these businesses with rapidly growing print arms (the former up 42% through Nielsen BookScan in 2014, the latter up 87%). Without this comfort blanket provided by this highly traditional and reliable channel, Canelo will need to work much harder to make each digital book a success—and quickly. In that respect, Canelo will need to operate like those indie authors, who have found that speed and agility can more than compensate for a lack of heft. As Bhaskar notes: “We have realistic expectations, but on an individual title basis we think we’ll be able to outperform other publishers.”

Digital-only publishing has become the movement that never quite happened—at least as far as the traditional publishing is concerned. Blackfriars, the Little, Brown digital imprint, or Carina, the Harlequin Mills & Boon unit, are honourable exceptions but in general for front-list publishing the traditional publishers have preferred to publish across all formats - or none. Eighteen months ago I might have said the most new start-up presses would be digitally focused, but outside of Endeavour Press in the UK, the trend among the new micro-publishers has been as much about print as it is about digital, good examples being The Do Book Company and September Publishing.

In that respect Canelo arrives at a perfect time for a market that needs a venture that can combine the talents from the old world with a vision for the new one. This, said Bhaskar, makes Canelo different from many other start-ups, which tend to have very little knowledge of the world they are trying to disrupt.

For Barreto the challenge is simple, and the three founders are clearly going to relish this opportunity to prove how different things can be: “We are building a truly 21st century publisher, with the tools and agility needed to explore new opportunities to the full. Now is when things get really exciting.”

Good luck to them.