Simon Collinson: Surveying small publishing's data on ebooks

Simon Collinson: Surveying small publishing's data on ebooks

A timely inquiry today, something for small publishers to consider. As my colleague Philip Jones wrote here at The FutureBook last week, the ebook market "that once was booming is now maturing. Volume e-book figures, supplied by Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, show a collective 5.3% rise in unit sales for the first six months of 2015...the shallowest collective rise since The Bookseller began collating ebook volume data from trade publishing's biggest players in six and 12-month cycles." Editor and ebook publisher Simon Collinson is asking now for input from the smaller presses; he'd like you to consider taking a short survey. — Porter Anderson

At this point, noting the opportunities that ebooks offer to small publishers is old hat. It's a rare publisher who hasn’t at least dipped her toe into the ebook market by now.

Digital-only publishers including Germany’s Frisch & Co. and Spain’s B de Books are now an established part of the small press landscape. Yet for all this promise, we have surprisingly little solid data on how smaller publishers are responding to, exploiting, and – occasionally –  suffering from the ebook revolution.

In this respect, indie authors have stolen the march from small publishers. They openly share their production, distribution, marketing, and sales tactics in forums such as the KBoards and in the comments sections at each other's blog sites such as that of author Hugh Howey. Howey’s runs ongoing surveys, which have logged close to 1,600 responses so far.

Thanks to quarterly earnings reports and continual data reportage from The Bookseller and other various media, we know a bit about the big end of town, too, such as HarperCollins' overall digital and print sales reported by NewsCorp and the recently reported 3.5-percent downturn in sales in the first six months of 2015 at Lagardere's Hachette UK, with 33 percent of those sales comprising ebooks (down from 35 percent in 2014). 

Comparable aggregate sales figures for smaller publishers are conspicuously absent from these discussions.

Although analysts including Rüdiger Wischenbart regularly produce such high-level research as his Global eBook Report (see the Business of Books 2015 free download offer at Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club), for the most part the analysis we read in the English and American trade press focuses on the English-speaking market. Much innovation is taking place, however, in other markets where, for example, Verlagsgruppe von Holtzbrinck recently joined other publishers in Germany in dropping Adobe DRM from ebooks, in favor of digital watermarking. Small, export-focused publishers like Madrid-based Hispabooks Publishing are ideally placed to describe their home markets for colleagues overseas.

When questioned about their ebook businesses, many small publishers report that they have little confidence that they're following best practices in production, design, or marketing, partly a result of the dearth of reliable information. When it comes to small publishing, a number of important questions could be examined:

  • How much are small presses paying to have their ebooks made? And by what means — in-house preparation? outsourced formatting?
  • How do they feel about DRM?
  • Through which retailers are they selling their ebooks, and in which territories?

Given such opacity down the supply chain, it makes sense for small publishers to ask these questions of one another.

I’m researching a number of these topics specifically in the context of small press publishing, with the help of a short, anonymous survey.

Wischenbart’s research has shown that so far ebook markets "have been driven very much by bestselling titles from either the largest publishing groups, or from a small number of highly successful self-published authors."

This is surely a sign that small publishers can and should compete more aggressively, and sharing information may be a step in doing so. As Mike Shatzkin recently asserted, a player like Amazon may have the opportunity to expand into new fields of marketing because those channels are ceded by publishers.

This data won’t benefit only small presses. It may also give authors a better understanding of what small publishers have to offer. It could help new ebook producers, many of whom struggle to know what they can or should charge for their work.

Even major ebook retailers – sometimes maligned as hoarders of customer data and sales information – might benefit from knowing how and why some suppliers are struggling and succeeding.

Early results from the survey are proving interesting. Small publishers seem divided on the virtues of DRM. A growing number of them are using digital as well as physical galleys. A significant group of publishers combines in-house and external resources in the creation of ebooks.

Final results will be published later this year, but participants will have early access to a draft report. The more small publishers participate, the more reliable the data will be, so please click here to anonymously add your thoughts to the mix.

Main image - iStockphoto: Nito100