Digital imprints: the apple falls close to the tree?

Earlier this week, over breakfast with a well-respected American sportswriter and journalist, allonymbooks met someone else who ‘writes fiction in their spare time’. This journalist has been chewing over ideas for a series of mystery novels based on his long and intriguing career in television and newspapers, and asked allonymbooks for their advice on entering the e-book market. A recent article in WiReD by Graeme McMillan sprang to mind, for its reminder that print publishers never stray far from what they know.

In his article, McMillan drew attention to the growing interest print publishers have in certain segments of the e-book market. Random House and HarperCollins have recently launched or announced e-book imprints focussing on very specific generic branding including scifi, mystery, romance and ‘adult’. RH’s VP Alison Dobson suggests that audiences who have made the move to e-readers want different things from their reading experience than those who read print copies, and that ‘difference’ centres around genre fiction in particular. Likewise her opposite number at HC, Liate Stehlik, agrees to some extent, claiming that people who read a lot of genre fiction were quick to pick up the e-book format because they are voracious readers, “reading for entertainment, reading multiple books in a month across multiple genres.”

The argument put forward is that the digital format has made it far easier for publishers to gauge audience response to a new book. They can pre-release selected material easily to get reviews and responses to content, covers and so on, engaging social media followings and potential audiences, and this has made the marketing teams’ jobs much easier – and lower risk. And if they are publishing in a particular genre where they know they have a market, indeed where they perhaps already have that market as a brand, the statistics seem to bear out the argument that this shift in the mode of publishing has been win-win for publishers and readers alike.

Both publishers also claim that this mode has allowed them to experiment outside the boundaries of what print publishing would normally permit, from a cost-risk point of view. As Stehlik is quoted saying in the article, “The thing with digital is that you’re not as adhered to a single format or price point as you were in the past….You can do a novella, you can do a short book that leads into a longer book, or a book that bridges two different books from the same author. Before, you might have thought, Oh, there’s nowhere to put that…but digital presents a different market to promote shorter works. And the audience responds… We don’t have to feel limited by format in the way that we may have done before.”

Yet here’s the paradox. These are not new markets they are exploring. They are their existing, highly successful genre markets, with the gaps and cracks filled in. And the very innovation they claim to be embracing – long short stories, full length fiction (40-60k), commercially risky projects by already successful authors – is not the innovation that the digital publishing phenomenon enables. It is not innovation in genre, in writing style, in reader interface. Yes, they’re taking on new authors who are already publishing digitally, but in solid existing markets. So it might seem to the outside observer that this is simply an extension of the influence of the same old print-publishing marketing team.

It would be a shame if the big houses kept to these few specific genres. It would be a missed opportunity if they failed to see the potential that digital publishing offers them. What if they set up new digital imprints specifically to take on innovative writers, and those who bend or fuse genres rather than simply consolidating them? What about poetry? The massive decrease in the cost of publishing books directly to digital format should mean that the arguments traditionally used by marketing teams to editors that they can’t pigeonhole a book or aren’t clear on its market, no longer stand up. It is the publishing houses’ own argument that it is easy to put out an e-book, capture its market, engage a response in readers. So why not use that potential to embrace what indie authors have been doing? Why not ignore the ‘risk’ that  marketing teams apply to books that they can’t pigeonhole and publish some e-books that sit across genres, or establish new micro-/multi-/inter-genres? If this is an opportunity for experimentation, if this really is “a great opportunity for us to grow our list, and our reach” as Stehlik claims, then this is the publishing houses’ chance to do something original.

So what did allonymbooks say to our journalist friend? “Here’s the link to Alibi at Random House. They are currently taking submissions.”

And good luck to him. He has some great stories to tell.

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