Five digital lessons from BookExpo America 2012

This week, the book industry gathered at the ugly, cavernous Javits Center in Manhattan for the largest book trade event in the United States. (“I feel like I’m in Costco,” actress-author Molly Ringwald told the AP.) Here are five digital lessons from the week.

Self-publishing, part I: “There are no unrealistic expectations anymore”

Self-publishing platform Smashwords announced this week that it’s making self-publishing faster: Smashwords authors who sell e-books on Kobo and Apple (s AAPL) will see faster “shipments” to those platforms, meaning that if they update their e-book’s price the change is reflected in near-real time. “We try to listen to people with unrealistic expectations,” CEO Mark Coker told me, “because their unrealistic expectations are the leading indicator of where we need to go.” Near-instantaneous price changes would allow an author to, say, sell an e-book “at $0.99 for the next five hours only.”
Smashwords is now working with library distributors 3M and Baker & Taylor’s Axis360 so self-published authors can get their e-books into libraries. Right now, the libraries buy Smashwords books at list price (publishers like Random House, meanwhile, charge more for the e-books they make available to libraries). Soon, Smashwords will allow its authors to set special pricing for libraries, Coker told me. “A lot of them are going to want to offer libraries lower pricing,” he said, or “will want to offer their books for free to libraries.”
Smashwords will soon let authors specify the countries where their books are distributed. Right now, authors (and the agents Smashwords works with) have the rights to sell their e-books in some territories, but not others. With the changes, for instance, an author could define that his or her e-book should be distributed “globally, except for commonwealth countries.” Smashwords will also let authors specify their prices by currency — a change from now, when authors have to price in dollars and retailers convert the currency automatically.
Also, Coker said, Smashwords will start accepting EPUB files (as opposed to Word files) later this year. With EPUB 3, that means the company could “potentially take more sophisticated books or enhanced books.”

Getting rid of DRM: This is going to take forever

Macmillan’s Fritz Foy announced at the Publishers Launch BEA conference that the company’s sci-fi/fantasy imprint Tor/Forge will launch a DRM-free digital bookstore this summer, and it may include DRM-free e-books from other publishers too. Meanwhile, distributor IPG announced that it will give client publishers the option to sell e-books DRM-free, and Kobo will give authors the option to sell DRM-free through its new self-publishing platform Writing Life. Still, publishers are moving slowly and it looks as though changes are going to happen in trickles.
Penguin global digital director Molly Barton said at Pub Launch that “Penguin is interested in methods of file security that would allow greater interoperability between platforms,” but Random House president of sales, operations and digital Madeline McIntosh called the DRM discussion “a red herring in a publishers panel at the IDPF conference, Publishers Lunch reports (paywall). She noted DRM’s not the only thing that keeps readers using a particular digital bookstore’s platform: “We have to be clear about what the goal is and commercial reason [to remove DRM].”

Self-publishing, part II: It’s getting closer

“We saw that seven percent of the units sold [on Kobo] were coming from self-published authors,” Kobo EVP of content and merchandising Michael Tamblyn told me, making those authors “collectively the size of a major publishing house,” so we “wanted to get closer” to them. Thus the launch of Kobo’s new self-publishing platform Writing Life. Authors using it get a 70 percent royalty on e-books priced between $1.99 and $12.99 and a 45 percent royalty on books below $1.99 or above $12.99. By “looking at how e-books sell in general,” Tamblyn said, “we know that after $12.99 there’s a drop…and after that it’s difficult to generate significant demand.” So the royalty structure “encourages authors to stay within that space.”
Amazon (s AMZN) took up a lot of floor space, with separate sections for Amazon Publishing and self-publishing platforms Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. At KDP, the company set up rows of chairs and, all day long, self-published authors gave presentations on why they use KDP. “I also sell on Nook [Barnes & Noble’s self-publishing platform is PubIt],” I heard one author say, but Barnes & Noble (s BKS) doesn’t rent a public booth at BEA — which seems kinda dumb considering both Amazon and Kobo’s emphases on self-publishing at the show. Kobo, too, had the self-published authors participating in the beta launch of Writing Life speaking at its booth.

Startups: Maybe we’ll find a better way next year

The Javits Center’s vastness makes it tough for publishers and startups to randomly encounter each other, a lame “Digital Discovery Zone” is removed from the rest of the floor, and terrible or nonexistent WiFi prohibits quick demos or many interactions you need the Internet for. (Can I throw in one more complaint? There’s no WiFi in the press office and the woman who runs it yelled at me for “drinking all the water.”) The founder of one fairly well-known startup told me he was finding it tough to meet with the publishers who could get use out of his product. Despite a few panels that try to bring traditional publishers and newer companies together, BookExpo America remains, primarily, an event where publishers and authors pitch new books to librarians and booksellers. Maybe that’s what it should be, but since it’s also the largest book industry event in the United States, it’s not surprising that digital companies arrive with expectations about who they’ll meet and leave wanting more. It seems as if there should be a more efficient way to make these meetings happen — stay tuned on that.

Don’t hold your book party on a rowboat

OK, this one’s not digital. Author Robert Sullivan took BEA-going booksellers to the Hudson to promote his upcoming book “My American Revolution,” which is about the historical importance of New York Waterways. As the New York Times reports, “two rowboats – built at the boathouse to imitate 19th-century New York Harbor craft known as Whitehall gigs – left the pier loaded with booksellers, volunteer coxswains and local residents.” Unfortunately, one of the boats “struck a pier” and flipped, “dumping three BookExpo conventioneers, two instructors and two others into 60-degree water.” Five were able to climb onto the pier. “The other two drifted 100 yards away.” There were no fatalities.
See also
Social reading, discoverability and other unsolved problems at BEA 2012
Kobo launches e-book self-publishing platform, Writing Life
Macmillan’s Tor/Forge will launch DRM-free digital bookstore this summer
Wattpad raises $17 million to become the YouTube of writing
Photo courtesy of BEA