A Brand, A Plan, A Channel: eBooks and Mass Market

By Ryan Chapman, Internet Marketing Manager, Macmillan

A lot of the discussion about eBooks tends to frame the format in absolutist and misleading terms.

“It will destroy print.”

“It will devalue the book.”

We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming a growing new format will upend the entire industry (remember the fear concerning audiobooks?). The format will dictate the content and this makes for one of the most exciting shifts in the industry since the rise of mass-market paperbacks.

I bring up mass-markets as an analogy and a precedent. Could you imagine pitching the concept to publishers? “It’s a smaller trim size, printed on cheap paper, and we’ll charge a third of the hardcover price. Yes, hardcovers are beautiful objects, but we think there’s a big opportunity here in treating our books as disposable commodities.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if industry pessimists back then expressed the same fears of cannibalized sales and devalued content that they do now regarding eBooks.

Mass-markets defined their own readership (at airports and supermarkets) and genres (commercial and genre fiction); you don’t see biographies or political nonfiction in this format. Of the current top 20 bestsellers on the New York TimesPaperback Mass-Market Fiction list, 8 have never been published in hardcover (disregarding the large-print hardcovers for Snow Angels and Hot on Her Heels).

The eBook format is no different. After the digital transition, we’ll find that certain books fit an eBook audience, while others are meant for print. Personally, this year I purchased hardcovers that I would never buy as an eBook (Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice), and vice versa (Steve Knopper’s Appetite for Self-Destruction).

Of course there will be overlap. Of course there will be outliers. It’s foolish to think this will be cut and dry on either side.

Thankfully, the publishing industry will be able to weather this transition with greater ease than at previous inflection points. Returning to our analogy, a mass-market pilot program for a major publisher would have required a significant amount of capital for market research and R&D. Not anymore. A lot of traditional market research tools have become affordable (if not free) in their digital forms. Creating consumer surveys, testing book covers, sampling book fairs (for the YA market), etc. Publishers leveraging their direct-to-consumer channels will gain unprecedented reader data at much less cost than in the past.

In the digital transition, we’ll stumble and fall more than once. Harlequin felt this recently with the warm reception for their Carina Press announcement, and the cold shoulder Harlequin Horizons received a week later. But now we can “fail fast forward,” informed with real-time reader response to determine what readers want and in which formats.

The data will most certainly run counter to our guesswork and opinions.

Bowker’s Kelly Gallagher has noted eBook consumption favors fiction over nonfiction at a rate disproportionate to print. (We’ll learn more during his Digital Book World presentation, “Today’s eBook Consumer: A Look at First-Round Data from BISG’s On-Going Survey of Consumer Attitudes Toward eBook Reading.”) Is this significant of eBook habits overall, or merely the behavior of the early adopter community? How much of this is determined by the device?

Reading on a dedicated ereader is different than reading on the iPhone or PC; this too will determine purchasing behavior in the coming year. e.g.: I can embed links to YouTube videos and relevant URLs in my ePub, which, for the right title, makes it a more attractive media property on the iPhone than the Kindle.

Just as 40% of New York Times mass-market bestsellers have never seen the traditional hardcover format, I predict that by this time next year we’ll see a trade title flourish as an eBook, with little or no print support. I’m not talking about Stephenie Meyer selling 10K copies of the Twilight iPhone app, but a word-of-mouth hit operating solely within this new market. Maybe it’ll be a thriller encouraging readers to seek out YouTube content; or an extremely topical work of satire pushed to market at twice the speed a printed book can be crashed.

We know all change is disruptive, and in an industry with thin profit margins that can be scary as hell. It may get worse before it gets better.

Whatever happens, though, I find it’s a thrilling time to be in publishing.

Ryan Chapman works for Macmillan as an internet marketing manager. In January he’ll transition to working exclusively with Farrar, Straus and Giroux. You can follow him on Twitter at @chapmanchapman or on his blog.

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  1. Since I first heard of the library computer on Star Trek way back in 1966 I has been waiting for the ebook, and when it arrived I jumped on board with enthusiasm. All of my books are published in a variety of e-book formats, and they are meant to complement my printed books. I have even posted links to preview portions. But until the consumers notice that they are there, and that there are other alternatives to Kindle, I can only twiddle my thumbs and wait.

  2. One thing I can say about eBooks. They save our trees. eBooks may be the answer to our global warming problem, right?

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