Entertainment & Arts

Ebooks: Is digital opening up a new chapter for publishing?

Mills and Boon advert
Image caption Mills and Boon has launched a mobile service

With ebook sales on the rise, how is the publishing industry embracing the world of digital?

Next week some of the biggest names in publishing will gather at the Hilton in London's Park Lane for The Bookseller Industry Awards .

This year sees the introduction of a new category - the Digital Strategy Award - which recognises how the introduction of new technology is opening up the market.

It comes at a time when UK sales of consumer ebooks leapt by 366% in 2011 helping to offset a decline in the demand for printed books.

Last week it was revealed that the Pottermore ebook store sold £3m-worth of Harry Potter ebooks in its first month, with more than £1m of sales taking place in the first three days.

Sam Missingham, of The Bookseller's digital publishing blog FutureBook , says 2012 is the year that digital has become embedded into publishers' thinking and is no longer "just an interesting experimental playground for the cool kids".

"Ebooks are the bread and butter stuff," she says.

"Publishers are seeing huge growth in this bit of their business. One of the big leaps in digital is that publishers are able to communicate with their customers directly."

That is true of one of this year's award nominees, Harlequin, which has seen its Mills and Boon brand flourish in the digital era.

Ebooks have allowed the publisher to double its output of titles, which are released in monthly cycles. Sales of digital books now outstrip physical sales via the website.

"We've tried over the years to put digital at the heart of everything we do," says Tim Cooper, Mills and Boon's digital and marketing director.

"Digital lends itself to the habitual nature of our content. Our readers finish reading one and they can download the next."

Several thousand titles on the Mills and Boon back list have been converted to ebooks, but the company is also exploring the benefits of social media.

"Having direct communication with our readers is hugely important to our future success, it's not always about direct selling," says Cooper.

Mills and Boon's young adult range of books has a teenage panel - recruited via Facebook and Twitter - that gives feedback on cover designs.

Erotic covers

As well as introducing ebooks with animated covers, M&B is also planning to launch an online bookclub.

But what of its range of erotic fiction? Has the ebook boosted sales among readers who may have baulked at the idea of reading an erotic paperback in public?

"Part of the appeal of digital reading is that nobody necessarily knows what you're reading," admits Cooper, "but I think the immediacy and the convenience of e-reading is a stronger pull.

"If you look at the digital bestsellers they are not all erotica and books with covers you wouldn't want to be seen with."

As Missingham points out, it is the world of smart phone and tablet apps where the book trade is being more cautious. "Given the cost of sophisticated apps, publishers have no idea if they are going to get their money back."

"Apps within the industry have a bit of a bad reputation," says Rob Nichols, marketing and digital director at Constable and Robinson , another publisher on the nominees' list.

Image caption Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad was also released in app form

"They're quite expensive to produce and at one time there was a rush to produce apps where there was no editorial need to do so."

One of Constable and Robinson's highest profile apps in 2011 was created for Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Fiction Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. "Its unique structure lent itself to something a bit more creative," says Nichols.

The book, a series of interlocking stories set against the background of the US music industry, jumps around in time from the punky 1970s to the near-future.

The app allows the reader to re-read the story in a different chronological order. There are also background notes on each character as well as audio and video and illustrations.

In a market fuelled by e-readers, C&R has reached the point where ebooks now account for around 20% of its revenue.

The shrinkage of the printed book business - particularly in non-fiction - has also led the publisher setting up ad-funded websites Honest John - for car enthusiasts, the Complete University Guide and home-grown veg site Allotments. All three sites started life in the print world.

One of the leaders in the field of literature and apps is Faber and Faber's partnership with Touch Press.

Last year's digital edition of TS Eliot's The Waste Land for the iPad proved that literature-related apps could be profitable when it earned back its costs in six weeks.

"It's an enormously exciting time to be in digital publishing," says Touch Press CEO and co-founder Max Whitby.

"We don't just take a book that might exist in printed form and simply transfer it onto the iPad. We are looking for ways to give the reader some new insight into the subject matter that you cannot get on the printed page."

Touch Press's app The Elements set the template by bringing the periodic table of elements to life. Follow-up The Solar System won a Bookseller digital innovation award last year.

Image caption The Wasteland app features a performance by Fiona Shaw filmed in Dublin

But Whitby says The Wasteland - with a performance by Fiona Shaw synchronised to the poem's text - appealed to a non-scientific demographic.

Next up is an app with filmed readings of all of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets.

"The Wasteland and Sonnets take us into a new territory that brings in a much wider audience," says Whitby.

FutureBook's Missingham sees the overall mood in the book trade as one of optimism.

"The digital transformation is happening quicker than it happened for music," she says. "Are there some people who would prefer it not to be happening? Of course there are.

"But it's creating lots of innovation."

The full list of nominees for the digital strategy of the year award are: Nosy Crow, Harlequin, Constable and Robinson, Faber & Faber Ltd, Lonely Planet, Penguin, Osprey, Kobo and W H Smith.

The Bookseller Industry Awards take place on Monday 14 May at the Hilton, Park Lane, London.

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