Digital Book World published an article on their blog entitled “Who Cares How You Read? Just Read.” Writer Laura Brady wrote that “There has been a lot of press lately about data that looks like it’s pointing to declining book sales and surging print sales.” Well, if third quarter data counts as data, she is, indeed, correct. Publisher’s Weekly recently posted that third quarter eBook sales were “down” at HarperCollins and “weak” at Penguin Random House. Is the ever-climbing eBook sales graph line headed to the long tail? Perish the thought!
The digital publishing industry is just hitting puberty and suitors of all kinds are lining up at the door. Brady writes that, although she is now an eBook developer, she “loves books [and] started working in publishing because of a romantic idea of what books and the people who publish them are all about.” She even admits that she doesn’t “apply the same romanticism to the business she works in now.” Ah, there’s the rub. People really do have an attachment to their books. Reading books digitally is utilitarian. You can’t really cuddle up to an e-reader, but you can get your work done.
Laura Brady, though, is really addressing publishers and doing some much-needed PR for eBooks:
“I think there are certainly a lot of misconceptions about ebooks—that they can’t be nicely-designed, that they are worth less than print, that reading them is a “less-than” experience. None of these things are true. But they will become a self-fulfilling prophecy if publishers believe them and put little to no energy or creative attention into their digital publishing programs. Just like mass market paperbacks upended a staid publishing culture in the ‘30s, ebooks aren’t going anywhere and need to be a critical part of the publishing planning process.”
Brady goes on to say that “Some of us are working constantly to make future-proof ebooks that are nice to look at and easy to consume despite the confusing proliferation of specs and devices.” Apparently it is up to publishers to save eBooks’ fourth quarter sales and thereby the industry overall. Sometimes, though, I like rooting for the underdog and unlike Brady, I do “get jazzed by the smell of paper” in a newly purchased book.
Cynthia Moore is a writer and former educator who joined the M.P.S. in Publishing program at The George Washington University to gain cutting edge industry know-how to launch her own publishing venture.
Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that starting in March 2016, Playboy will bid adieu to nude, or at least to fully-nude. The magazine isn’t abandoning its characteristic presentation of women in provocative poses, but it is responding to the hyperabundance of pornography by redirecting their focus to the quality content they’ve always had.
The internet has allowed for the explosive growth of pornographic content, and there are plenty of sites that are organizing and offering pornography with little to no obstacle. Playboy could have responded to this disruptive change as their competitors have—by trying to trump in print what the internet offers via video. However, this strategy failed for one of Playboy’s primary competitors, Penthouse. Instead, Playboy is turning its focus to other the content for which it has also established authority—its reporting, articles, interviews, and other editorial text. Take a moment to peruse the comments of The New York Times article, and you’ll see comments from readers claiming that they read Playboy for their articles. Personally, I own a copy of The Playboy Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of science fiction shorts that have been featured in the magazine by authors such as Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, et al. It’s a very well-curated collection by Alice Turner, Playboy’s science fiction editor.
Playboy has to keep their magazine alive when this segment is generally struggling. While the magazine is profitable globally, it is losing $3 million a year in the United States. Let’s consider the possibility that removing fully nude photographs could also be a new marketing strategy by appealing to a whole new audience—women. Playboy currently makes most of its money from merchandise. If you do a quick search for merchandise with the famous Playboy bunny logo, how much of it appears to be marketed towards women? Belly button rings and jewelry, dazzling watches and cell phone cases, pajama sets, pink lawn chairs… I could go on. Clearly, they have the attention of women who subsequently want attention for displaying a logo traditionally associated with being “boys-only.” While you might be able to easily recall seeing a girl lying on her Playboy bunny beach towel with a matching bikini set, you’ll not likely recall seeing said girl with the latest issue in her hands. It’s still taboo for a lady to read a nudie mag even if the articles are genuinely interesting. As Playboy re-brands as a non-pornographic publication, will women become more comfortable picking up a copy or possibly even proudly displaying their copy in-hand?
An Erie-based horror publication called Hex Publishers has decided not to drink the proverbial “kool aid” of the publishing industry. Instead of following the traditional commercial standards of the publishing industry, Joshua Viola has decided to pay all the startup fees for Hex himself, even going so far as to “already have things lined up for the next three years” while paying out-of-pocket.
Hex Publishers is excited to focus on the writers instead of the money, and in doing so, Hex is attempting to pave the way for more indie-publishers to do the same. By paying each author more for their work, as well as giving them a higher share of the royalties, Hex is maneuvering away from some of the issues current in the publishing world of today. Viola has also decided that to do so, he is also going to put the push on marketing more than other publishing houses, even the larger ones, in order to get the work of his authors out into the world.
Another, more interesting step for this company is the trial-run of publishing some work on the Play Station Network to see if it might increase exposure and sales. If this works out the way that Viola hopes it might, publication will be expanded to other new media platforms.
Here’s hoping that this new method of marketing catches hold in the rest of the publishing world. It would be an incredible boon for writers to try to get back to the things that actually matter: the work being distributed.
A scary piece in The Guardian speaks to the value of publisher mission statements.
This article describes the experiment of an anonymous professor who had repeatedly been contacted by a publisher to write a book for them. After seeing bad experiences for his colleagues, he finally decided to play along and see what the company had to offer.
What he experienced was tarnishing to academic publishing. This particular publishing house specializes in high volume (75 titles per AE yearly), high price ($100-$200 per title), low sales (~300 units to libraries only) and the books published generally disappear to a storeroom in the library after having been buried and unseen on the library shelves for a year or so.
Even worse was the acquisition editor conversation that is described in detail in the article. It shows a lack of interest in 1) the author and his research; 2) the field; and 3) the success of the title. Three very important factors of academic publishing.
I can only wonder what the mission statement of this company is, if they even have one, and if so, was it was ever shared with the editor?
Paper Versus eBook: What the Statistics are Saying
Ever since Kindles and iPads hit their high in 2010, talk of the death of paper books has increased exponentially. But is paper really on such a dramatic decline? The numbers for 2014 book sales indicate the opposite, and trends in 2015 largely say the same. Nielsen BookScan, a technology that tracks what readers buy, concluded that the amount of paper books sold in 2014 increased by 2.4% from the year before.
Supposedly paper books were done for in 2012, when sales “hit rock bottom,” but the recent spike in sales tells a story of a resilient and long-lasting format for readers. Several studies have been conducted on the productivity of eReaders, and most indicate that comprehension increases when one reads from a paper book. It is much easier to quickly scan over a page of an eBook, causing comprehension to “[take] longer and [require] more effort to reach the same level of understanding.”
True to their first love, bibliophiles everywhere advocate for paper books, adamantly proclaiming that nothing compares to the feel, heft, or smell of a book. In fact, for many people, “the physical act of opening a thick cover and listening to the whispered crackle of spine and page is part of the enjoyment.” It isn’t just the feel or the smell that entice paper-book-fans worldwide, though; actually owning a book, a physical, tangible copy, holds a kind of magic that a list on one’s Kindle inventory cannot. Recently, the Ryerson study found that more readers believed eBooks as more temporary than physical books, perhaps due to the fact that an author or publisher can remove an eBook from the web without warning.
However, eBooks and digital readers are not going extinct either. Rather, they seem to be forming a peaceful coexistence with paper books, one where readers can choose the method by which they receive content. Because of this, both readers that prefer paper books and readers that prefer digitized content have access to published works. It seems as though publishing is heading toward a “paper-and-pixel” future.
Inspired by his own challenges with dyslexia, Dr. Matthew Schneps is possibly reengineering the way we read. The speed at which we read is limited by how quickly we can absorb information. Unfortunately, it seems the priorities when designing letters and words were focused on reducing the amount of time it takes a scribe to write and the cost of the materials on which they were written. Schneps describes how letters were designed to be drawn quickly and compressed to fit as many on a page as possible to reduce the amount of parchment required. However, when letters are clustered very close to each other, a phenomenon called “crowding” occurs. Crowding describes the brain’s inability to distinguish the letters in the cluster, and research supports that crowding limits the speed of reading. Schneps uses the following cluster of letters as an example: Dwzrh k wbp. Notice the letter “k” is much easier to distinguish than the following crowded cluster: Dwzrhkwbp.
Now that we don’t have to wait for scribes to painstakingly write text, and digital formats remove the cost of paper, scientists are rethinking how we can read to process more information efficiently and effectively. Dr. Matthew Schneps, a director at the Laboratory for Visual Learning, is collaborating with scientists to re-invent reading to be more efficient with limitations that are inherent only within the brain and not by our eyes’ inability to relay information quickly enough to our brains for processing.
Schneps began this pursuit of research after struggling with dyslexia. He discovered that it was easier to read on the small screen of his smartphone and cites evidence to support this impact of shortened line reading. Even before smartphones were invented, researchers had started to notice that shortening the span of text facilitated reading by those with similar struggles. He theorizes that shortened line reading helps to guide the reader’s attention forward in the text. Other researchers have demonstrated that guiding the reader’s attention allows the person to read more quickly. For example, Beeline Reader is an application that creates a color gradient in each line of text to guide the reader forward. Rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) is another method of flashing words one at a time in a single place on the computer screen which eliminates the requirement to visually move along a line of text.
Schneps and his colleagues are attempting to increase reading efficiency by activating parallel channels of processing through both vision and hearing. People can process language as speech much more quickly than they can read; however, when the speed of speech reaches a threshold, the brain is seemingly overwhelmed and comprehension plummets. The Laboratory for Visual Learning is using a “rapid accelerating program” (RAP) or RSVP to quickly show people visual presentations of text; meanwhile, they’re utilizing the person’s auditory network by rendering the same text as audio. This way, the speed of processing is limited by neither the visual nor auditory pathway, and theoretically a person will be able to read more quickly than they would if they were relying solely on either their visual pathway or auditory network.
This motto, created years ago within Coffee House Press, developed out of the fear sweeping the publishing industry surrounding the surging popularity of e-books. The sky is falling, was the general consensus, with the fear not only that “print would die,” but that Literature (with a capital L) would be irreparably changed as well. Early on Coffee House understood that literature and publishing are not the same thing. The art won’t change, just the way it’s distributed into the world. In the years since the initial panic Coffee House has made a name for itself as an innovator in the field of publicity and marketing books. The small house, which labels itself not only a trade book publisher but as an arts organization, prides itself on publishing diverse multicultural voices and books that cross boundaries in terms of race and culture as well as form and artistic expression.
Coffee House has stayed true to its roots as an arts organization by branching out into areas outside of traditional trade publishing, through the implementation of a creative, innovative way of marketing books. The press is utilizing digital media such as podcasts and social media platforms to establish a connection between writer and reader. Coffee House has created residency programs and library initiatives that ensure the writer isn’t shackled to his/her keyboard, but is actually interacting and establishing relationships with the reader. One such initiative is the writer-in-residence program with The Floating Library.
The Floating Library is a large wooden raft that floats on Minneapolis’ Cedar Lake and serves as a library. The idea is that people paddle their canoes to the raft and are free to select a book from the curated collection of inspiring, artist-made books. Coffee House sent poet, Steve Healey, as resident to The Floating Boat to curate a new collection of poetry available to the public. Healey’s residency culminated in a midnight poetry reading on Cedar Lake in early August. It is the hope that the unique environment inspired creativity and results in the production of new art to be introduced into the world. This is just one example of the innovative ways that Coffee House Press is shaking up the world of publishing.
*** Heather Hickox earned a Bachelor’s in English at Middle Tennessee State University in 2015 where she was the recipient of the 2015 William J. Connelly Writing and 2014 Martha Hixon Creative Expression Awards. She is now pursuing a Master’s of Professional Studies in Publishing at the George Washington University. Her work has been published in several editions of Collage: A Journal of Creative Expression. Heather is currently working on her first collection of poetry.