“A Printed Book? How Quaint!” Digital Initiatives Push Book Industry Boundaries at Book Expo America 2014

The Digitial Future of Publishing

Digital initiatives have played a big role at Book Expo America—and in the publishing industry—for many years. This year, they were numerous and creative, going far beyond typical applications like digital rights management or prepress, and into the domain of creating user experiences.

Here’s some of what I saw in that arena:

  • Iprlicense.com: a web-based foreign and subsidiary rights department, for authors whose publishers don’t market their rights (or who  re their own publisher)
  • Farfaria.com, a mobile phone app to help children learn to love storytelling (and parents tell stories more successfully); the app includes more than 600 stories, with about five new ones added every week.
  • FirstEditing.com: an online portal with free sample, 1 to 3 cents per word. Has affiliate program.
  • Section 101:  A tool for creating templated instant websites, which pulls data from Amazon and other websites in real time (and quickly), includes social media integration, multiple sales channels including authors’ own websites (with e-commerce handled by Paypal). Two plans: 1. No setup/design fee or commissions, $24 per month hosting. 2. Custom design services for $499 including the first year of hosting (meaning the net cost for site design is $211).
  • The digital area had a number of companies offering book enhancements such as soundtracks or hyperlinked annotation—plus many tools for booksellers, libraries, and publishers. Much attention to how digital books can work in libraries.
  • Reader-centric reading platforms continue to spring up. One I enjoyed seeing was Novelry.com, which lets readers find books through various metasearch techniques (and is actively looking for authors and publishers to provide content).
  • Similarly, Mediander.com creates a personal newspaper from book content.
  • Welcome news for self-publishing authors: the Ingram Spark program, announced last year, gives self-publishers a more user-friendly experience than its LightningSource (LSI) digital publishing system, and includes ebook distribution. Ingram has 39,000 retail partners. With set-up cost at $49 set up, refundable on orders of 50 copies or more, data feeds to Amazon and Baker & Taylor, and a $25 revision fee, Spark may emerge as the first real viable alternative to Amazon’s CreateSpace.

I did a couple of more detailed interviews with digital companies:

Library For All

First, with Jessica Cordero and Kelen Jiang of Library For All, an Android (we are currently Android-based, but are keeping the option open to expanding beyond Android)-based digital library platform with a charity component. The app is filled with ebooks and digital educational resources such as textbooks, storybooks, and teaching materials. In Cordero’s words, “We curate content from major international publishers, major open educational resources (e.g., Project Gutenberg), and local language publishers” including the Creole-language publisher, Educa Vision.

Jiang noted that the organization’s founder, Rebecca McDonald lived in Haiti for three years. “After the earthquake, she noticed the lack of books even in schools that weren’t affected by the earthquake. But everyone has mobile phones when they can’t even afford books.” Cordero said McDonald’s insight that phone networks can deliver information over 3g, even without wi fi, came about as she crisscrossed Haiti with her husband, a marathon runner.

According to Jiang, Library for All, a nonprofit, which has raised $110,000 in seed funding through Kickstarter, has implemented programs to distribute and test new hardware-an inexpensive tablet manufactured and produced by local Haitian company Surtab—and is “working on sustainable revenue models that encourage local content creators. We also get book donations from major publishers. But only 600 books have originated in Haiti [total], so we’re really looking at encouraging local authors. And the content they create is way more relevant to children in Haiti. We did a follow up trip in January (3 months after the pilot) and found that children had already seamlessly integrated the Library into their classroom activities.”

After the promising start in Haiti, the organization plans to expand, starting with Rwanda and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Says Jiang, “We have been approached by education partners in both countries. We also work with NGOs as implementation partners.”


I also interviewed Enrique Parrilla, co-founder of pentian.com, a company that wants to combine crowdfunding and self-publishing, with offices in Sevilla, Madrid, and Los Angeles.

In this interview, anything not in italic or between square brackets is in Parrilla’s words:

The model is disruptive. The main difference between Kickstarter etc. and us is that [in conventional crowdfunding,] the backers only provide the funds. They may get a signed copy, a named character, but that’s it. We wanted to create a connection between the author and the community. A financial connection. The backers receive a percentage of sales.

How do authors benefit?

Every backer becomes invested in success of the book. You get a much more viral connection with the market, you have 20, 40, 50 backers. You make every backer a publisher, and they obtain profit from the success of the book.

You present the book proposal to us. We own the entire production chain, layout, design, marketing, production, distribution. We’re able to assess the costs of publication, and publish at a substantially lower cost. We are not getting a fee on the fundraising. Once the sales start, we work with the net profit. But the cost of production will change from one continent to another, so it is difficult to come up with percentages on the retail price. So we take all the net profits and put them in a big bag. 50% goes to the backers, proportional to their investment. 40% goes to the author. 10% goes to the publisher.

The percentage to the publisher is much lower because so much goes to the backers and the authors. This is sufficient, because the costs of production are covered by the fundraising campaign, and we work on demand.

Initially, when we receive a manuscript or proposal, there is an evaluation. If the thing stinks, we will offer to fundraise for professional editing services. We will come with a budget, custom made for each proposal. If they need an illustrator, for example, it will be built into the proposal.

We will accept anything not indecent or violent. We have done fundraising books for Charities, novels, children’s books. 70% fiction, 20% nf, the rest is a hodgepodge.

Unlike Kickstarter, we put a cap on the funds to be raised. We are really striving to be fair and to provide a sense of urgency.

If you see a book is doing well, if you do not jump in, you may be left out. We can do additional campaigns for marketing, etc., but once we set the budget, when it’s gone, it’s gone. So you see the funding accelerating rapidly when a book hits 60-70% of its funding goal. The viral concept works really well. People start swarming out and we don’t always understand why—but when it happens, it happens very quickly. Some books sit at 5% and don’t get funded. The investors get the full amount returned. If [the authors] raise half, we’ll look at options like digital-only format. We’ll look at options to make it work.

Backers do not have the certainty that a book will get funded. As a publishing company, we make sure the publishing happens and the book sees the light of day.

The Rest of the Show

But this is still Book Expo, and it’s still mostly about books. Printed books. Hundreds of thousands of them.

Show Trends

This year, the show feels smaller, more intimate. Everything got moved around. The New Title Showcase, usually out in the lobby, is inside the main hall (barely). It’s still very dominated by the various subsidy-published Author Services brands, and still a marginal destination that draws little traffic.

Oddly, one thing that was different was attendee fashion. In past years, the overall look was kind of rumpled business casual. People in suits and blazers or button-downs and khakis, but not what you’d wear to a state dinner or to the Oscars. This year, a lot more were dressed toward one or the other extreme. I saw hundreds of women and dozens of men who looked like they just stepped off a fashion photo shoot. And at the other extreme, where did all the flannel shirts come from?

Big houses have big but for the most part not massive booths—about half the previous size, typically. Among the largest were McGraw-Hill and Wiley, but Wiley’s pavilion displayed almost nothing except some test prep-type books. Usually they feature business and professional titles. Sourcebooks was another large booth with almost nothing on display. I don’t understand the logic of spending many thousands of dollars on a massive booth at a book fair and then not displaying books.

And librarians were absolutely everywhere. They seemed to outnumber booksellers this year.

Kids’ Environmental Books—Even Disney Gets Into the Act

Lots of books on food consciousness, including a children’s picture book, Old Manhattan Has Some Farms (Charlesbridge), about urban food production. Other green kid titles: The Bicycle Fence, about recycling.

Disney is even partnering on a green children’s book series featuring Mickey Mouse. I interviewed Jon Axel Olafsson, CEO, and Tinna Proppe, Publishing Project Manager, of EDDAUSA, the US branch of the publisher Disney has endorsed to bring out the series, starting with Mickey and Friends Go Green (available now) and then the Mickey-covered Green Planet (scheduled for October).

Proppe said, “It’s about being responsible part of the community. It’s filled with interesting facts, how many rainforests we could save by recycling, how many bees it takes to take one spoonful of honey.” The answer to that second question is about 2000, by the way.

Olafsson took over as Proppe had to field other inquiries. “The target is mainly families, it’s a workbook, a guide, a way for families to create time together. The book is a guide through all the technical terminology.”

EDDA’s parent company, in Iceland, EDDA Nordic, is no sranger to the Mouse. Says Olafsson, “We’re in the segment of lifestyle books with Disney, princesses, hair, parties, magic. We’ve been working with Disney for 30 years, and we saw an opportunity in this market. We started negotiating with them almost three years ago. The first book came out on Earth Day, April 22nd. We have ten others in the pipeline. The third book, Mickey and Friends Green Garden, will come out on Earth Day 2015.

“The response on the green book has been very strong, we see long life for it. It fits educationally into school classrooms. We have excellent reviews on Amazon. And the reaction at the show from teachers has been unbelievable. The market is missing a fun book that kids relate to, and this is the answer. Mickey is a big brand promise. What comes from Disney is always quality. We’re proud to work with them.

“We are on disney.com and we believe that we will move into the stores of Disney parks soon. They are making the extra effort to make sure this book will be printed all over the world.”

Civil Rights

There was a surprisingly big crop of civil rights books, a trend I would not have predicted. I would have expected it last year, with the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech. But this year marks the 50th anniversary of some other big civil rights events, and publishers are jumping in.

Young Adult—And Erotica

YA seems to be mostly about vampires and paranormal or else craft or environmental. The incredible absence of mainstream YA fiction was very, very strange; normally there are hundreds of prominent titles in this niche. Some YA titles billed as sexy, which I don’t recall seeing before.

Speaking of sex—Long-time erotic e-book publisher Ellora’s Cave was emphasizing males this year, with a bunch of bored-looking scantilly clad “hunky” men hanging around and posing for selfies with middle-aged female publishing execs walking by. Among other erotica publishers this year, a very high percentage of bondage books, some of them very arty. One line, Cleis Press, mixed edgy/kinky erotica (both fiction and descriptive/instructional) with self-help/nonreligious inspirational, parenting, environmental, gender/queer studies and human rights around the world.

Marketing and publishing consultant Shel Horowitz is the Editor of Down to Business magazine. His latest book is the award-winning and best-selling Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green.