Ebooks, an independent’s view: Fledgling Press

Talk about ebooks is everywhere at the moment, but to writers and readers, the discussion can seem somewhat polarized. Either the book is dead and we’ll only be served up generic fiction sanctioned by the biggest companies, or we’re facing a deluge of self-published rubbish. However, it’s a much bigger picture – and one that’s looking rosy for some independent publishers, who may not be hitting the headlines so frequently but sure are getting on with quietly revolutionising the way they work.

One such publisher is Edinburgh’s Fledging Press. I met with Paul Cain, the Digital Director of the company, the other week, and his enthusiasm for ebooks and the opportunities they’d bring shone through. He explained that the press had been considering digital books long before the Kindle explosion of last Christmas, and therefore were probably keener and better placed than many small presses to take advantage of the sudden boom in interest.

Fledgling has a number of ebooks already out and a number of plans in the pipeline, so I asked Paul how difficult it was for them to add this facet to their business. Not too difficult at all it seems. With the conversion of proofs into ePub formats taking less than a day in-house and costing somewhere between £50-100 to outsource, Paul gave the impression he couldn’t understand why anyone would chose not to expand into the arena.

Of course, it’s one thing to have created an ebook and another to get it in front of readers, a problem facing all big, independent and self publishers these days. Fledgling make use of Faber Factory when it comes to distribution, and possibly would have gone with them for the formatting on their ebook files if they hadn’t found doing it themselves to be entirely possible.

But, as Paul pointed out, converting the book is only one part of a very long process, and when we discussed the ways books – and their low overheads – could provide encouragement for those considering self-publishing, he talked about all of the things you can expect a publisher to do for you before you make it to actual publication, such as editing and proofing, as well as all the things it will do afterwards, such as promotion and advertising.

I asked him how authors felt about the idea of having their work in ebook form, and he said their response has been overwhelmingly positive. However, I wasn’t at all surprised when he confirmed that yes, the majority of writers wanted to see their book in physical form too. The publisher does have one client they are currently working for in ebook form only, and that’s R. J. Mitchell, whose book was out in print in the US but was looking for a way to distribute locally. His contract meant that ebooks were an option, and Parallel Lines ended up being the company’s bestseller this year.

Paul is looking forward to the experiments Fledging Press will be able to conduct thanks to ebooks – such as tweaking prices, changing marketing plans to suit different demographics and choosing which books are best suited to which mediums. Such is the reasoning behind the specifics of their latest release – Chin’s Sex, Love and Sweet Suicide, which they publicized with help of Twitter and a recorded reading.

As far as Paul is concerned, digital publishing is all about releasing potential – and that’s exactly the ethos behind Fledgling Press.

Margaret Irvine, another Fledging Author, is scheduled to speak at Portobello Book Festival this Saturday.

When is a book not a book?

As technology grows ever snazzier, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to work out exactly what the word ‘book’ defines. Back when I was a kid that was a pretty easy question to work out. A book was a collection of pages bound together, normally with a pretty picture on the cover. True, some books were made of cloth and some were even waterproof and inflatable (I wish you could get those bath time books for adults), but they were all essentially the same thing.

Then there were audio books and story tapes, and these were a little trickier to classify, but it wasn’t much of a problem, seeing as you’d naturally assume there was a solid, paper book present during the creation of the tape – they had to be reading the story from something after all.

The movement of stories from paper and print to pixels muddied the water slightly, but when I think of ebooks, I still think of something that resembles a physical book. In my mind, it’s just a digital representation of those paper creations I know and love – whether it’s a whole book on my laptop or a short story on Ether, it’s still a ‘book’ to me.

But yesterday I saw a news story about Penguin’s new book for babies, which seems to be an interactive story experience on the iPad for the teeny ones, and I started wondering when you reached the point where a book was no longer a book. True, many children’s books are interactive – from those cute ones with spaces for finger puppets to pop up varieties – but then, so are plenty of video games.

Getting stuck into a console based game such as Final Fantasy or Fable isn’t considered the same thing as reading a book, and I definitely don’t think it should be, but there’s plenty of storytelling – and generally reading involved in these experiences.

So, if playing games like those are considered something very separate from reading a book, where do you draw the line when it comes to the new, multimedia offerings that are being branded as books these days? I’m thinking of things like the new Penguin release, or Ann Rice’s ebook experiment, or any of the other new developments that combine traditional books with new technology to make something new. When does a book stop being a book? Or does the word book just have a totally different meaning these days?

Reading in the mobile world

I love my books. Love paper, love the feel, love the smell, love it when they get all bashed up at the corners and you find scraps of paper, receipts and bookmarks between the re-read pages, just love everything about them. So obviously, the whole ebook thing didn’t much fill me with joy the first time I heard about it, way back when. However, I have to admit that my attitude has been slowly changing.

Some good news (more on that soon) encouraged me to paddle my toes in mobile reading, and I have to say it’s gone down well so far. One iPhone App called Ether later and I was speedily downloading short stories by the dozen to give it a try.

After some stressful Christmas shopping and a few unexpected bouts of sitting around in unusual places, I’ve decided that having short stories on my phone is awesome. I’m not sure about novels or other long pieces of work, as you can only fit some many words on a small screen in one go, and I’m still going to be carrying a paperback around with me most days, but I love the idea I can still have my back-up fiction dose on me – even when I’m in party clothes and I’ve had to leave the big old bag I normally drag around with me at home.

Online sample chapter encourages buyers

Whether to put your carefully honed, obsessively slaved over and (hopefully) arresting first chapter online for the world to pick up, pick over and pick apart is a question asked by most writers these days. Copyright fears combine with the ever-present worries about your own abilities, to create quite a reasonable argument against. But just listen to the argument for: viewing chapters online has a positive impact on purchases.

According to Reuters, LibreDigital found that for one big publisher one in three of the folks browsing ended up buying the book they sampled. That’s pretty astounding.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being wary about putting short fiction online – it’s not because I’m scared about people taking it or slating it, it’s merely the fact that my online presence and audience is small and once you’ve published something on your blog it typically isn’t accepted by magazines or anthologies and therefore won’t have a chance at reaching a wider audience.

However, LibreDigital also found that the most popular books browsed online were romance novels, followed by teen/tween writing and business books. Maybe I won’t get too excited just yet. Still, it raises some interesting questions about pirated books online. I’m sure plenty of people are searching pirated versions to read a little and check whether they like the style in much the same way they would sample a few tracks from an album.

Maybe I should take these findings on board and publish a chapter online. Or maybe I should write a teen romance featuring plenty of business advice.

Scribd leaps into ebook market

So now Scribd has realised the money making potential offered by ebooks and begun a service that will see customers able to buy content from its site.

This could prove great for authors and publishers – not only because they can earn up to 80 per cent on sales of their ebooks in a brand new venue, but also as this could prove a big step in tackling piracy before it’s properly taken hold.

As long as the things that people want are available, and the prices are fair, many folks are happy to pay for their newest ebook reads. And with Simon & Schuster and Random House on board, Scribd’s surely off to a strong start here.