Expozine 2015 Digital Publishing discussion
EXPOZINE 2015 Digital Publishing discussion
Digital Expozine took advantage of the presence of so many authors, publishers and avid readers at the last Expozine small press fair in Montreal in November 2015 to host a round-table discussion on the topic of digital publishing.
The participants were Maxime Raymond (Les Éditions de Ta Mère), Hugh McGuire (PressBooks) and Harley Smart (Bookart, Anteism), moderated by Louis Rastelli (Expozine) and Pascal-Angelo Fioramore (Expozine/ Les Éditions Rodrigol).
Les Éditions de Ta Mère is a veteran Expozine that is among the few which currently have all publications available in print and digital form. Editor Maxime Raymond will share his experiences on the road towards becoming a hybrid publisher.
Harley Smart has participated for a number of years in Expozine with Anteism. Established in 2003, Anteism focuses on producing limited/ short-run editions in the formats of artist monographs, artist books, exhibition catalogs & zines. He also has helped operate, since 2015, a print-on-demand style service called Bookart (bookart.ca).
Hugh McGuire is the founder of PressBooks, an online publishing Platform built to run inside of WordPress. He is also a writer and technologist who has focused on the transformations affecting the publishing world for several years.
LR: It’s gradual, but among the many publishers present in large numbers just next to here (during the Expozine small press fair), there are more and more starting to put out electronic publications alongside their physical books. It can still be a challenge for small publishers, for now, to get going in this domain. It may also be the case on the side of the reading public: tablets and electronic readers are not as prevalent among the kinds of readers who go to Expozine as they may be in other markets.
I want to start with Maxime Raymond, an editor at Les Éditions de Ta Mère, who impressed us in recent years by becoming one of the first in our community to start simultaneously publishing digital and paper editions of each new release. Tell us how you got there, Maxime!
MR: Well, I’ve been involved with Ta Mère for nine years already. We began the digital transition about four years ago. There was a kind of vibe at the time, it was as if digital publishing was to change the world. There were those who said “your books will be all over the Internet! It’ll be the new Eldorado of literature.” Then there are those who said: “books are about to die, no one reads them, they just browse the internet.” I’ve always been in between these extremes. To me, none of this is terribly threatening or dramatic for the book industry, nor are we in some epic re-invention period either.
The advantage we had as a publisher is that we were already working with InDesign to design our books, and so it is very easy to output the content as an ePub, which is the main format for novels that have minimal graphic content. Next, we knew an organization called le Déclic that is a social reintegration agency that literally helps people convert publications to ePub. Through them, for about $100 per book, we were able to create digital versions of about fifteen titles from our catalogue right off the bat. Now we create them as we go.
I find making digital books is not so hard. What’s more difficult is to distribute and sell them, to have a platform to really give people access to your books. We work with a distributor called De Marque, which is a big distributor of digital books in Quebec. Publishers provide them with the works and all their information, and then from that, De Marque makes titles available on amazon.ca and independent sites, independent booksellers from around the world. So it saves us from having to deal with so many different players.
But I should still mention that sales are not very strong. For us, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t cost much to make a digital version. Furthermore, our priority has always been physical books. Digital books can be convenient for those who travel a lot, but otherwise digital publishing has not had much impact on the literary scene in Quebec. Digital versions have replaced many super cheap US paperbacks that you used to buy at bus station. But in Quebec, I’d be surprised if the proportion of digital is 5-6% of sales, it’s still very incidental. We did it for our small catalog because it was easy. But beyond that, for small publishers I think the issue is still distribution.
LR : Interesting. On that topic I’d like to invite Hugh McGuire to say a few things.
HM: So it was in 2011 that I started pressbooks, which is software to help produce electronic books in ePub, .pdf and other formats. The idea is to have software that’s easy to use. People already using WordPress for their websites, so now with the same expertise we could push a button and have files that are formatted to a digital publication format. It’s been four years since I began developing this, our customers include many small presses and self-publishers but also institutions and presses that tend to produce the digital version first, and which print books on request only.
Our software aims to help reduce the costs and complexities of electronic publishing. However, regardless of format, publishers and authors still have the main challenge of reaching their readers. So that’s the key challenge for everyone who is interested in the creation or distribution of books.
When I started, the eBook market in the US was around 10% of the total book market. And shortly afterwards, around 2011, it rose quickly, and there were some who thought it would quickly reach 50% of the market, like within a few years. But there was a kind of plateau around 25%, and in Canada and France it plateaued much lower than that.
But what is really interesting for eBooks is the possibility of having global distribution, e.g. with De Marque it’s very easy to do this as Maxime mentioned.
For small presses that are already very close to their readers, the question that should be asked is: is it worth the trouble to go digital? The content can be a big factor, as electronic books work less well for literary texts, they work best for works that are not experimental, very straightforward such as detective novels etc. There are still quite a few electronic-only publishers of literary material, but these are very small publishers or publications. I think that four years ago I would have said “everything will change, all of you had better adapt immediately!” And then we saw that the life of the printed book is quite stable, maybe a 20% stake in some categories of books have moved to electronic, but not every category. I do believe it will continue to change.
LR: Maxime, as someone already publishing digitally, do you feel that you’re prepared if ever digital pubishing really takes off?
MR: The advantages of digital is that you produce one digital file and after you sell perhaps ten of them you’ve covered its costs. So, you recoup your investment quickly. Whether you sell 15,000 or 8, the production costs are the same. I have no inventory management to do, once it’s all on a server, people can buy it, simple as that. At the same time, the paradox is that while these new tools are practical and easy for small publishers to use, they for the most part still enjoy producing printed books first and foremost. The digital version should be seen as a useful archive, a backup, even when a print run is sold out.
PA: Yeah, but when it’s text files or stuff like that, maybe it is easier, but a printed book can still last 100 years. We have no guarantee that in 100 years anyone will be able to read a digital file. I have tons of CD-Rs with text and image files on them that I can no longer open just after 15 or 20 years …
MR: Yeah, yeah, but I think the file formats are improving, there are enough people working to keep stable formats going, and things like Adobe really want these formats to remain in use.
PA: But I get the feeling the growth in eBooks recently mostly happened in schools. The figures you mentioned for the US are impressive but they have plateaued, they may have peaked already. But in Europe for example, the numbers are in fact very modest, in France, it’s not even 5%. Here it’s even less than that, I think at about 3% in Quebec of the overall book market. But the schools are a growing market, for example the big French publisher Hachette is beginning to dominate the entire African schoolbook market. It works great for that market as the costs to produce and distribute schoolbooks is huge there. But all of this is separate from the literary market, the self-pubishing market.
MR: But in France and here, the concept of the convenient pocketbook format is much less present than in the US. A big hurdle are the publishers who want to protect their profits that are charging just $4 less for an eBook than the paper version. Fuck off, I’m not buying a digital file at the same price it would cost me to buy paper. Ta Mère would never sell a book above $10 in digital format, even if we charge $25 for paper, because it’s just a file! The author is paid the same money as with a paper book in any case.
PA: This is one of the main problems that I see, who would pay that much for a freaking PDF file… Also, nobody has set up a decent new structure for authors, actually … That the person selling 8 books or 15,000 books might get the same percentage of sales.
HM: Of course publishers have a lot of other costs of production besides printing: marketing, design, sometimes a few editors, proofreaders, researchers who make work on the text along with the author. But these costs vary according to the book and the publisher. That said, for a bestseller, let’s say that we printed 60 000 copies, production costs are maybe 4 or 5% total. So they already make a pretty good profit after costs on paper books and have carried this over to digital.
Another real problem I see with digital publications is that we do not really “buy a book” … I buy an ePub file, I’m not allowed to share it, there are plenty of things I can’t do with it compared to a paper book, and I think that is a major reason the industry hit a limit with sales. With a book on paper, we know exactly we can do with it – lend it, re-sell it, write notes in it. “Owning” a digital file is more just like having a license to view the file for a period of time.
PAF: Actually, I think this is what makes the whole digital book such a different creature from physical books.
MR: In our case, we prevented our digital distributors to add DRM (Digital Rights Management software) on our books. I told them they were treating our readers as potential thieves and pirates. If the book is a big success, the DRM will get hacked and people will share the book anyways. You got a file, you do what you want with it because you paid for it. I’ll live with the risks that you’ll send copies to all your friends and I lose a lot of money. Otherwise it’s almost as if the book you bought, the physical book, disintegrates when it travels more than 20 km from your home. This is completely ridiculous. You know, we used to photocopy printed books too, that’s life. My opinion on this is not very popular, I think we are among the fre publishers in Quebec to not use DRM.
Audience question: Even with DRM, it’s not hard to get around it, I’ve already “installed” a book on several computers, for example, typing in the same code provided at purchase. The only time I really see a problem with the DRM is when, say, you borrow a digital book from the library but there is a limit to the number of users who can borrow it, so you have to wait for 20 people to finish reading a digital book before you can get your turn, which is a bit ridiculous because they’re just files.
MR: But that’s what the libraries negotiated with the publishers when they began setting up digital catalogus. When the library buys a file, it can be lent out a maximum of times before it needs to be purchased again. They tried to copy what they had set up for paper, where a library has to replace a worn-out paper book if it gets borrowed like 200 times. Libraries by far buy the most digital books of anybody. The setup is ridiculous, but it does protect authors and publishers and allows for some income.
Audience 1: I can understand when a physical copy of a book is borrowed by someone else, it’s no longer available to me. But to do the same with digital… What’s the point of having digital copies then, apart from not having to leave home to return library books?
MR: (laughs) Yes, it’s very paradoxical, that’s for sure.
LR: We want to talk to one of our exhibitors here who run a hybrid press, both ebooks and printed books. Harley Smart runs Anteism books and I have to ask you, when did you start Bookart?
HS: We started it as a print-on-demand just in the past year. Our publishing house Anteism has been operating since 2003, and in the last few years we’ve been trying to get into eBooks. The main thing driving us is to try to figure out how open is an eBook? And what’s the difference between a website or a Tumblr page and an eBook if you can’t plug in, embed things into your ebook. We’ve gotten into augmented reality, where turning a printed page can make things happen to go along with the content, with the images or story.
HM: So far it seems the place where graphic or comic book material works well in ebooks is for manga. Kindle also has a tool that will make a digital version of children’s books, like a .pdf version, and turn it into an ePub that keeps the graphic design and images but makes it become what’s called reflowable—this means that I can make the font bigger, and the images automatically adjust.
But the problem within the eBook world is that it’s really that Amazon, Kobo and a couple of other companies own the market and they only innovate around the stuff they make money on, which a guy at Kobo told me was that their job was to keep older women readers of romance novels happy (laughter). All their R&D budget is devoted to how to make viable books, and that’s all that drives the eBook market.
LR: I would guess any real innovation is going to come from somewhere else then. Going back to Anteism, one of the books that got the most attention on the Expozine team afterwards was Scorpion Dagger, which turns out to be based on digital rather than the other way around.
HS: Yeah, this artist was mainly online, had a Tumblr page where he sort of remixes Renaissance paintings, had a great following, had all these years of work but never made a book. We were introduced and it end up working really well. We set up an ebook version where short clips of action can run on the page. I’m really excited about what else we can add with augmented reality.
MR: I think the new art form that’s going to emerge with digital books, and then augmented reality, is just not there yet. There have been a couple of tries in really experimental poetry that have been done well. But I think we haven’t seen this true multimedia object that could go mainstream. The augmented reality is just going to take over eventually because everything is getting smaller and smaller, they are working on it. Weird glasses, Google glasses… Microsoft is doing something like that… People aren’t always that into new technologies at first, but it’s going to happen eventually. Right now, we’re just seeing the transposition of paper books into digital, and it still doesn’t work; I find artbooks just don’t work in digital, the formats aren’t adaptable enough. But there will be NEW categories of art, and that’s where something will come together as a new physical – digital object. Oh also another thing that’s going to happen: we will finally be able to make money from it, that’s the other big novelty (laughter).
LR: It’s funny because it’s already been about four years since the Expozine team started planning to do something to explore digital publishing. Then three years ago, we started applying for funding for this, because there was this big excitement about digital publishing. We thought people would be bugging us about their digital zines by the next Expozine. But in the past two years, it’s really levelled off. Now, it’s like, who knows where this is going. And so to sum up our conversation, perhaps we are still just at the very beginning, we’re still taking baby steps, at least in most categories of books and writing, towards a stable model of digital publishing.
HM: I have a comment about that. The Kindle came out in 2008 or 2009, I think, so that makes it about six years since we’ve had an eBook market. But as Maxime said, all that happened so far is that we took the print model and transferred it to digital. But for sure within 10 years, there’ll be a generation of people who do not have the same relationship with books that traditional readers had. That does not mean physical formats will disappear, not at all, but the whole ecosystem has to change. This can be very slow and very difficult when the Amazon ecosystem currently sits at the center. It’s too rigid and structured. But I think we will see something completely different emerge, and it is precisely these people next to us (in the large Expozine small press fair) who will have the vision to do so.
LR: And perhaps at that point we’ll be able to host a “real” Digital Expozine!
MR: We do see a lot of younger artists learning how to use all the old presses, the old equipment, letterpress, risograph, everyone is excited about these 100 year-old machines, but they should learn to code! Coding is not that hard, a lot of people don’t know it and there is a world that you could open up with it. I love letterpress stuff, I’m not saying it’s stupid, but to code, in the world we live in, if you’re a producer of content, if you know how to code you can take care of yourself. If you know how to code, you can do anything. But there’s still that step to do in school, they’re not teaching coding very much. And it’s a language that, when you know how to do it, basically, you can do so much stuff! But I think it’s not in the cultural milieu, and culture is culture. Artists do not code. But once we get a generation of artists that already learned coding in school, they won’t just be using those skills to create video grames, they’re going to create who knows what. And then young programmers might not all want to get into video games, they might see that what the artists are doing is so cool that this is where they’ll want to work. We just haven’t seen something like that happen yet, maybe ever.
LR: Are you more encouraged or discouraged about all this, as a publisher?
PAF: I think the only advantage I have is a bit like for Ta Mère, the fact that we have a modest catalog and that most of it is already in InDesign, it wouldn’t be too hard to convert them all. But at first, during the first 3-4 years, whenever I considered the question, and saw that there was a format war between ePub and other formats, I felt that I was again waiting for the result of the VHS / Beta war, and thought we’d have to wait five years before we find out what format wins.
MR: At this point all of our digital publications are in ePub format.
PA: Ah, but you see, it took four years to make that decision! (Laughs)
HM: On top of that, the great secret of ePub is that it is basically HTML, the same as a website. So it’s not even that the ePub format wins, it’s the Web that wins because HTML is not going to go anywhere.
MR: Ah, the guardians of the temple! (Laughs)
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