Creating an Electronic Bestseller
A publisher turned to an online e-book purchase and delivery service to convert a traditionally printed bestseller into an electronic product
by Tatyana Sinioukov
It's no secret that more and more publishers turn to the Internet to market their printed books. Few take it to another level by offering a book in a different shape and form--electronically. In the case of Washington, DC-based Regnery Publishing, a division of Eagle Publishing, two of its bestsellers, The Millennium Bug by Michael S. Hyatt, a #7 bestseller in 1998 on the New York Times business list, and The Year of the Rat by Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II, #17 on the Times non-fiction list in February 1999, had already existed in printed form. With the help of The 1stBooks Library (www.1stbooks.com), Bloomington, IN, an online e-book purchase and distribution service, Regnery has converted these two books to electronic format and started selling them online through the The 1stBooks Library.
According to Dan Snow, director of communications and planning at The 1stBooks Library, his company got in touch with Regnery when they noticed how quickly The Year of the Rat was flying out of bookstores during the past holiday season. Figuring that being out of stock--with demand only increasing--didn't make the publisher happy, says Snow, his company offered to turn the title into a downloadable electronic product and distribute it online. Snow recalls that Regnery then asked what the process would involve. "We said, 'Just send us the disk.'"
"The files were beautiful," reports Snow, referring to the PDF files Regnery created while typesetting the printed original and later had sent to 1stBooks for digital distribution.
"We think that it affords us a new market," comments Al Regnery, president of Regnery Publishing, on his decision to get involved in this project. "We are convinced that it won't cut into our traditional market, the bookstores." The online version of The Year of the Rat, he says, should spark some interest overseas, since this is the book "about the People's Republic of China and the involvement of the (U.S.) administration with transferring technology to China in return for campaign money," the book the Chinese government would not allow into the country but can't prevent people from downloading from their home computers.
As for The Millennium Bug, a book focusing on the Y2K issue, says Snow, putting it online was a wise marketing move, since 100 percent of the people who come to the 1stBooks Web site, obviously, use computers. Also, adds Regnery, since the book has a short shelf life (until the remainder of this year, to be exact), opening a new market for it was a good decision.
According to Snow, for a large publisher, going online makes sense for two reasons: when demand exceeds supply, as in Regnery's case, and when the books concerned belong to the so-called "marginal mid-list," meaning that they are tried-and-true titles that will surely sell a few copies--but hardly more.
"Although our primary constituency at this point is the individual author or the small press, our system is actually better designed for medium-to-large publishers like Regnery," comments Snow. Publishing online not only offers the usual benefits of generating books on-demand, but it also gives an opportunity to test "unproven new works," says Snow, with little cost and virtually no risk. Also, once publishers have already invested in bringing a printed book to the market, he adds, a fast and inexpensive transfer from print to electronic form opens a new market of online distribution.
"There is no inventory, which is great for a publisher; there is no production cost," points out Regnery. "It's a simple process."
In general, for publishers big and small, electronic publishing, according to Snow, offers many advantages over traditional publishing. It's faster and less expensive, to name just two. Sidestepping the expenses and economic risks traditionally associated with bringing a new book to the market, he notes, includes elimination of costs related to printing, binding, shipping, storing unsold copies, and paying percentages to bookstores and other middlemen.
"This makes it possible to sell virtual books at 25 to 50 percent below softcover prices ..." says Snow. "I don't think we pay anybody less than 40 percent royalties. That's almost three times the largest amount that even a big-name author can get from a traditional publisher."
In addition to offering a product "in unlimited quantities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to an estimated 50 to 70 million people who use the Internet," says Snow, publishers may consider that virtual books possess features conventional books do not: they are searchable, and they can also offer links to online resources, sound, animation, interactive graphs and charts. Other advantages, he says, include the ability to copy text and paste it into other documents without retyping, and type enlargement for readers with vision problems.
Then consider the turnaround. Most virtual books, according to Snow, can be published within 60 to 90 days of the date when the manuscript is submitted for less than $500. Remembering his days as a traditional print publisher, Snow says he wishes he could get his hands today on all the manuscripts he had rejected and publish them electronically, at a fraction of a cost. "By eliminating paper and ink and so forth, we pretty much completely avoid the huge economic risk that it takes to bring a new title to the market," he remarks.
The cost of publishing online with 1stBooks depends on how readily the manuscript can be converted to one of the three most accepted formats, says Snow, noting that 70 to 80 percent of publishers submit usable manuscripts in one of the commonly-used formats. Research his company has conducted to determine what software people use most on their computers at home, says Snow, established that accepting all files as (or converting to) Microsoft Word, Word Perfect or PDF was most cost-effective. PDF's platform-independence, he adds, proves to be especially useful.
So what happens after the manuscript is submitted?
It is the company policy, says Snow, "not to dictate what is good writing and what is not," instead letting the author decide what the public reads and the public decide if it makes good reading or not. Snow notes that less than 10 percent of submitted material is rejected as inappropriate.
Once accepted for virtual publication, all incoming manuscripts are checked for spelling and grammar errors, as well as formatting, but the staff is instructed not to edit for style or content. After the manuscript is converted into an accepted format, a virtual book jacket is designed by an in-house designer, Snow explains. Each book gets one, custom-designed. Then, based on subject matter, the book is categorized and later logged into the database under the appropriate category. After the book is assigned a unique product ID number in order to track the credit card purchases to pay the authors their royalties, it's ready to be sold online.
Regnery may be the first large publisher to use 1stBooks to publish online, but certainly not the last one. Although Snow can't discuss the specifics, more titles from Regnery and other publishers are to be distributed through The 1stBooks Library this year. Currently, the company is servicing about 1,200 author-publishers and a number of presses, with more than 1,600 titles available online and 100 to 200 new titles coming in every month (400 to 500 of the titles are public-domain classics, which are free. Snow says he hopes to bring the number up to 2,000 by the end of March). Going a step further and beyond the realm of book publishing, Snow summarizes, "When modems get a little faster, you could also download a music CD or a videotape," suggesting that books may be just one of many virtual products available in the future.