Indies everywhere! New German publishing initiatives on the horizon

Once again, time has gotten away from me and it’s been a whole month since my last blog post. For the past four weeks I’ve been busy interviewing various small presses for the Frankfurt Book Fair and polishing my Master’s thesis till it shines.

I’ve also been exploring German publishing at a few events as of late, such as the Pub N’ Pub series, where the longtime publishing figure Elizabeth Ruge spoke on the role of the publisher – and why it’s important to experiment more with the possibilities of digital. For example: to enable text-to-voice functions on ebooks for the blind.

I also went to a “Nachwuchstreffen” for students of book publishing, where I was encouraged by the forward-thinking keynote speeches by Leander Wattig and Volker Oppmann. In particular, Volker Oppmann is someone in German publishing to really keep an eye on, as he has a huge project in the works, Log-os, which intends to position itself as an open-source platform for book buying and social reading which may become the independent alternative to Amazon.

Small presses sprouting up on the German landscape

In the spirit of delving more into German publishing, here are a few of my recent finds in Berlin and slightly further afield – all of these were founded in 2013 – talk about the year of the small press! What most of them have in common is they are focusing on the small form – from Mikrotext’s e-singles to Readux’s “teeny books”. There is also a definite enthusiasm to try out new formats, publish genre-bending short work, and even release titles in English. With no further ado:

xxxBEBEN-Logo-schwarz-20

Beben: This press is named after the German word for “quake”. With a focus on e-book novellas meant to shake things up, so far Beben has released 6 titles: from skewed creation myths, to unsettling social criticism, to a criminal posing as a mushroom hunter, and a lighter story of the Wnukis, who perhaps have the secret to happiness; these off-the-beaten path shorts could be well on their way to ushering in a renaissance of the novella.

mikrotext-logo

Mikrotext: An e-only press started by Nikola Richter, blogger and author of Superdemocraticos fame, Mikrotext has released a smattering of political, experimental, and above all, highly modern literature. Take Thomas Pelzer’s Spam Poetry (inspired by his spam mailbox), Chloe Zeegan’s Berlin Trilogy or Aboud Saeed’s The Smartest Guy on Facebook (Facebook posts about Syrian revolution), every e-book (and e-single) that Mikrotext has published seems to be both a product of its times and at the same time reflecting about its social-historical context in a nuanced way. And they have two titles in English!

readux logo

Readux: This new press for literature in English translation is one of the only projects here to put out books in the revolutionary format of paper – and these beautiful books definitely deserve a place on one’s shelf, not just for their aesthetically pleasing cover designs, so that these literary morsels can be devoured, marked up and shared. The first four titles  include the likes of Franz Hessel, who documents 1920s Berlin in lively prose, and Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whose essays explore the city’s continued magnetic pull today. Also, the press will release 4 little books three times a year, in a magazine-like cycle. Readux Books is the brainchild of Amanda DeMarco, who writes the books & publishing blog of the same name. I salute her for this high-quality first series, and am happy to note the books can also be bought as a set!

Fiktion: These last two projects are brand new and still surrounded by an aura of mystery. Fiktion ups the ante with a publishing model that seems too good to be true: they want to release books simultaneously in German and English, create an international network of writers, make their ebooks available for free, and experiment with new formats. Their manifesto is available on their site, but the truly curious are well advised to join their newsletter. Although not strictly an “indie” project, since they’re backed by German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (where Fiktion will host a conference on literature in the digital age), it will still be exciting to see where this thought experiment leads.

logo kladde

Kladde: The last project is likewise enigmatic. Their website is virtually empty, but they’ve already been nominated for the Virenschleuder Preis for creative marketing. This video comes the closest to explaining why. Much like Unbound in England, Kladde aims to fund its carefully selected (and oh so mysterious) book projects via crowdfunding. They seem to hint that the “crowd” might participate in more ways than financially, but again, we’ll have to stay tuned to find out what precisely sets this project apart.

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The ghost in the machine: Does print+ebook bundling have a future?

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The ghost in the machine: Does print+ebook bundling have a future?

Recently in a Publisher’s Weekly article, Alex Crowley asked why publishers are still not offering print and ebook bundles. There are many arguments in favor of including an ebook download with the physical book: it adds value to the physical book, it enables booksellers to sell digital books alongside print (and customers to buy ebooks in shops, where they discover them) and most importantly, it’s just downright convenient. Much like the music industry’s pairing of vinyl records with MP3 downloads, by bundling print and digital, publishers can meet readers’ demand to consume media in both digital and analog forms. In fact, many smaller publishers have started giving away ebook versions to each customer who buys a print book – such as Dzanc Books.

Various studies have shown that a large number of readers read both print and digital books, so why not sell them together? Overall, bundling has a lot to offer both publishers and readers, although retailers are often cut out of the equation. Publishers find out who is reading their books through the data provided by downloading, and bundles are a great way to build relationships and earn reader loyalty. In turn, readers get the books they want in multiple formats and without DRM.

Many publishers are hesitant about pairing print and digital formats because they are afraid of losing sales. Other publishers make the mistake of equating bundling with giving away the ebook, when in fact bundles can be priced higher than the print book alone. However, the risk of cheapening ebooks is a valid concern. When selling a print book and ebook as a bundle, the added value is the “experience of a bargain”, which could negatively impact the perceived worth of an ebook, giving readers the impression that ebooks should indeed be free.

However, those in favor of bundling recognize it as an opportunity to cross-market print and ebooks. Whether or not it could ‘save print’ is another question, but bundling definitely has the potential to incentivize print for readers who are still undecided about formats.

Bundles in bookstores

Despite the risks and challenges associated with bundling books, many smaller presses have made inroads selling print and ebooks as bundles. Crowley cites Angry Robot, a publishing imprint whose sales tripled in the first few weeks subsequent to offering bundles in bookstores. One bookseller’s perspective helps explain why sales were so high – booksellers were excited to finally be selling ebooks, and they used Angry Robot’s bundles as a conversation-starter to talk about digital reading with customers. This example shows that allowing bookstores to sell bundles can boost sales, as well as serve readers who might otherwise just use the bookstore as a showroom and buy the ebook online.

Selling direct

Most other presses which sell bundles only do so on their own online shops. While this unfortunately cuts bookstores out of the equation, it still has the potential to teach publishers a lot about reader demand. The Scottish publisher Canongate sold Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (longlisted for the Man-Booker Prize) as a bundle on their website. Canongate’s marketing director, Cate Canon, said in an email interview that the response among readers and the book industry was “absolutely fantastic”, including among retailers. Yet this respected independent publisher still chose not to offer the bundles in bookstores. From a strategic standpoint, publishers are deciding between using the added value of bundles to improve their retail relationships or to improve their relationships with readers directly. The fact that most presses only sell bundles direct shows that publishers are increasingly focusing on their relationships with readers.

BitLit

The Canadian startup BitLit approaches bundling from a different angle. With the BitLit app, users can buy the ebook version at a discount after proving they’ve purchased the print book. The verification process includes taking a picture of the book, writing ones name on the copyright page and submitting a photo of the page to BitLit to verify it. The process seems a bit involved, considering one still has to buy the ebook. Also, it’s a missed chance for the publishers to share pictures or book recommendations from readers. However, BitLit is still getting ready to launch, and it surely has a few creative flourishes planned for the app.

University of Kentucky Press – ebook loyalty program

The University of Kentucky Press, on the other hand, is sharing reader pictures with their ebook loyalty program. Each reader who sends a picture of him/herself holding up the U of K print book which they own receives a free ebook version of the book from the press. The press is posting a charming assortment of reader photos and anecdotes on their Tumblr account. So far, feedback about the initiative has been mostly positive.

German innovators

In Germany, several publishers have started selling bundles, such as the jointly owned presses Haffmans & Tolkemitt and Rogner & Bernhard. Inspired by the music industry, the two presses started selling their hardcover books with unique download codes in their Hardcover Plus program in early 2012. Publisher Till Tolkemitt said in an interview, “We’re not giving away anything; we’re selling a better product.” He cites an overwhelmingly positive response from booksellers, who love it because it enables them to sell ebooks without forcing readers to choose between digital and print. Perhaps the best news is that despite the danger of someone copying down the code in a bookshop and downloading the book, Tolkemitt says the presses have never been contacted by book buyers whose code was already used.

Many other German presses have followed suit and offer selected titles as bundles, including Ullmann Verlag, Rowohlt Berlin, Campus and the indie press Onkel & Onkel.

A format with a future?

There are several other types of bundling, such as the sci fi publisher Baen‘s “bundles” of digital advanced reader’s copies, or the Humble Bundle initiative, which lets readers choose how much they’re willing to pay for selections of e books, with the proceeds going to charitable causes. In a Bookriot article, Felice Howden argues that these types of bundles make a lot more sense from a reader perspective. Offering readers a selection of ebooks, such as a collection of books from one author, or a similar ebooks from the backlist, can help them discover books they might not have otherwise read.

For now, print+digital bundles still have the potential to offer added value. That’s because reading is still a hybrid experience. While many people prefer the tactile experience of print, they still want an e-version for traveling, for easy search and highlighting, or for social reading. As the field of ebook design continues to develop, we will hopefully be seeing more beautiful, intuitive, and user-friendly ebooks and apps appear on the market. And as these formats mature, there may be less reason to supplement the digital version with print. Hopefully, more publishers will take advantage of bundling in this period of transition. While print still appeals to our sensibilities, why not give readers the best of both worlds?

 

Here are some other publishers which offer bundles:

 

Special Mentions

logos

This is the first in a list of posts about innovative independent presses. In the book world, many speak of the “disruption” and transformation which trade publishing is experiencing. But by remaining dedicated to quality literature, taking risks on offbeat debuts, and increasingly engaging with reader communities (on social media, blogs & Goodreads), many independent presses are ahead of the curve in terms of innovation:

nouvella

Nouvella takes a very unique approach. Each book release starts with a LAUNCH week, when readers can buy the first 200 “shares” of a book. These early supporters receive limited-edition, hand-signed copy of the novella, a letter from the author, and an e-book version. Afterwards, print and ebooks are sold on the website and in stores. I love this combination of bundling limited editions with ebooks, as well as the approach of releasing one book at a time – that way, each book has a chance to shine, and as a reader I don’t miss out on any new releases from my favorite presses. And it’s more fun to support a book than “preordering”.

publerati

Publerati is a “socially responsible digital publishing”company which releases ebooks without DRM. Their model is interesting for many reasons: a publisher of literary fiction, Publerati still sells its ebooks for a mere $2.99. The organization advocates for fair author payment, which is why it only only takes 10 % of the book revenue. Another portion of the proceeds goes towards helping fund Worldreader, an organization which makes free ebooks and ereaders available in Africa – they also work with many local and regional presses. A quick look at Worldreader’s long list of partners is encouraging, but raises the question: why don’t more publishers donate ebooks?

unbound

Unbound funds its books through crowdfunding and aims to involve readers and reward them for recommending books. This project gives me limitless hope about what publishers can do to contribute to book culture. Yes, the cute little sketches on their Website don’t hurt, but what Unbound does best is connect readers and writers. When you subscribe to an author’s project you get access to their “shed”, get regular updates on the book’s progress, you even get £1 credit for each time you successfully recommend a book to a friend. They release ebooks and print simultaneously, and they also distribute to bookstores, but the heart of their endeavor is the interaction between author, reader and fellow fans.

Book tip: “As I Died Lying” is a fascinating Unbound project which 15 writers are working on together. Each writer composes the voice of a different character (a la Faulkner’s polyphonic original). I’m interested to watch the book develop, see ideas cross-pollinate, and hope that all of the coordination snuff out the spark of inspiration. But wait, they’ve already written half the book!

Coming up: Roaming bookstores, ebook clubs, free PDF books and what book subscriptions have in common with sushi.

In Praise of Indie Presses

A teensy tiny excursion into my small press obsessions, among other things.

Ever since I began exploring the work of independent presses in the US and abroad, I’ve discovered lots of presses and literary organizations which not only support great books, but which are also contributing to literary culture in fresh ways. That’s why I’ve set aside this space to house a growing list of indie presses and related organizations doing exciting things with books. Have any tips? If so, please get in touch!

This space will feature the occasional review or recommendation, and I will most definitely post non-sequiturs on Berlin life, good food and everything else which forms a backdrop to my bookish excursions. But the printed, pixelated, and shared word will form the red thread as I hop skip and jump through this labyrinth of presses, authors, and champions of good and overlooked books.