Creative Connections: Publishing an e-book is easy, right?

By DAVID CRUMM

Barnes and Noble salesman demonstrating a Nook in 2012 (1)

REMEMBER WHEN? Back in 2012, Barnes & Noble sales associate Mike Blum happily demonstrated a Nook at a store in New Jersey. In the spring of 2016, Nooks still are on the market but customers are a bit more wary after news of a dramatic retrenchment in the UK.

Once upon a time, Amazon introduced a handy little device called Kindle. And ebooks lived happily ever after …

No, that’s not how the story ends. But this tale lies at the heart of the question: So, how easy is it to publish an ebook—and then keep it on sale?

The Kindle era dawned in the autumn of 2007 and, coming on the heels of Apple’s introduction of the iPhone that summer, publishing tidal waves seemed to rise and crash toward the shores of an all-digital future. Kindle owners were given handy email addresses to upload their own texts to their devices.

In the future world, everybody could be an ebook publisher, right? For a while, the horizon seemed rosy. Soon, Kindle apps popped up on smartphones and nearly every other digital device flooding the market. Playing catchup in this global trend, Barnes & Noble introduced the Nook two years later. By 2010, the Kobo had arrived, which became closely associated with the Borders Group bookstores. And, those were just a few of the digital-reading options flooding American shores!

Some industry analysts were heralding the end of print books as the primary means of publishing manuscripts. The giant Borders chain flailed around with various marketing ideas. But Borders crashed and closed its last stores in the fall of 2011—still in an era when it looked like these digital books just might turn print books into an endangered species.

But then—something surprising happened.

The ebook craze leveled off and actually began to decline. Today, industry analysts refer to that roughly five or six year period after 2007 as “the digital scare.” Today, ebook readers still account for a very large minority of the total books sold in the U.S. Most books sold are ink on paper.

Today, authors can’t hope to reach their entire audience without publishing both in print and e-editions.

The dream of an easy pathway to e-publishing for anyone dipping a toe into publishing for the first time has become more of a nightmare of constantly changing standards and the rising and falling fortunes of various digital devices. These are turbulent seas, even for publishing professionals. A first-time author may successfully create and upload an ebook for a device such as the Kindle—but there’s no guarantee that a glitch in the author’s files, or a looming shift in standards, won’t knock that book out of the market—leaving the author clueless about what went wrong.

Sure, most astute writers still can load an ebook into a Kindle—assuming the book doesn’t include multimedia elements that don’t fit the Kindle’s operating system.

But navigating the waters of ebook publishing in a professional way takes experts who closely follow the industry and the ongoing shifts in standards.

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TOUGH TIMES FOR NOOKBarnes & Noble sent a shockwave through its customer base in early March, 2106, by announcing the shut down of services in the UK. The Great Britain version of Nook’s website suddenly announced: “Effective from March 15, 2016, NOOK will no longer sell digital content in the United Kingdom. The NOOK Store on NOOK devices sold in the UK, on the UK NOOK Reading App for Android, and at nook.com/gb will cease operation.”

A column in Digital Trends reports: “The U.K. site’s closure comes a little over six months after B&N shuttered its European branches, leaving only the U.S. site and apps in operation. The Nook site and associated apps will close for business in the U.K. on March 15, and details on how to migrate away from the Nook apps will be sent at the beginning of April.

If you don’t own a Nook, reading that news is likely to sound—well, flat out ominous about the device’s overall future. This kind of dramatic retrenchment leaves customers around the world wary of investing in a device that seems to be crumbling, or at least on shaky ground.

PRINT BOOKS RISE; EBOOKS DECLINE—You’ll find this conclusion reported across publishing-industry news outlets in spring 2016. None of the experts are predicting that ebooks will vanish. These devices remain a widespread and popular reading choice for millions of readers. But, it’s clear that print books will continue to be the dominant format for delivering books in the foreseeable future—and, to reach the entire spectrum of readers, both print and e-editions are required.

Here is one snapshot from Publishers Weekly (PW) in a column published for subscribers to the magazine in early 2016:

What is going on with e-books? As 2016 dawns, what’s driving a decline in trade e-book sales is one of the big questions hanging over the publishing industry. In December, the Association of Annual Publishers (AAP) reported that sales this past August dropped 3.7% compared to August 2014, and trade e-book sales are on pace to post a yearly decline. According to AAP Statshot figures, adult e-book sales from publishers that report to AAP were down 4.5% through the first eight months of 2015 compared to the same period last year. Total trade e-book sales (which include children’s and YA titles) were down 11.1% in the eight-month period.

That PW market analysis goes on to argue that the overall American experience in digital reading is moving from the trendy excitement of its introduction in 2007, through the flood of additional reading devices and dramatic changes in ebook pricing—into a mature new phase in the ebook market. That means ebooks are here to stay as a major method book buyers like to enjoy reading—but ebooks won’t swallow the whole publishing industry.

PUBLISHERS AND BOOKSELLERS WARY—Millions of ebooks continue to sell and many companies are working on the next wave of digital delivery systems and changes in standards that affect anyone trying to publish ebooks. But corporate leaders in the publishing industry are nervously juggling their digital strategies. That’s what is happening at Barnes & Noble in spring 2016, sparking anxiety about that company’s future.

Here is another snapshot of the industry that PW sent to subscribers. This news report opens with “weak financial performance” at HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster in late 2015 due to lower-than-expected ebook sales. Then, PW turned to Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books & Music who pointed out that the publishing industry overall is strong and sales of print books continue to grow in a number of genres. Then, Reisman continued in the PW report:

“We believe people are recognizing that books are a part of our lives that we will keep a part of our lives.” She also noted that e-book sales have leveled off. “I think what people are saying is e-reading is not going away—we continue to participate in that market—but increasingly, people are using it for certain things, like when they’re flying, or when they can’t carry books around. Other than that, people seem to be happy reading their print books.”

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