Two significant events of recent weeks suggest that electronic books and e-book publishing have arrived in Maine in a big way.
One is the appearance of Portland writer James Hayman’s latest thriller, “Darkness First,” on the USA Today best-seller list. On a national chart that tracks all sales in all genres – fiction, nonfiction, hardcover, softcover and e-books – Hayman’s book was at No. 87 on Feb. 2, up nearly 100 spots from the previous week.
That’s significant, because Hayman’s book, for now, is available only as a digital download, and it’s tough for e-books to crack best-seller lists that also include print.
“Darkness First” also reached No. 2 on Barnes & Noble’s best-seller list and is one of the top selling police procedurals on Amazon. Harper Collins will release it as a paperback in late March, which should boost sales even more.
The second noteworthy event involves Brunswick-based Brynmorgen Press, which converted yet another of its print books, “Complete Metalsmith,” to an enhanced e-book. The digital version includes the full text and 1,800 illustrations of the original print edition from 2004, as well as a dozen embedded videos, links to websites, additional photographs, built-in calculators and a glossary.
The conversion of “Complete Metalsmith” and nearly another dozen titles in the Brynmorgen catalog is significant because the publisher, Tim McCreight of Harpswell, is a tech junkie who’s been waiting nearly a decade for technology to match his ideas.
“I want my books to be read, but I want them to look good, too. The solution was waiting for the technology to catch up,” he said. “It’s been 10 years of keeping my ear to the wall and experimenting. All along I’ve been saying, ‘No, not there yet. Not there yet.’ But we’ve finally turned the corner.”
In many ways, 2013 was the year that e-books found a comfortable place in the book-publishing world. The astronomical growth in e-books sales, which began in 2007 with the introduction of the Kindle reader, finally slowed, which indicates that e-books have settled into sustainable segments and niches among the book-buying public. Readers are comfortable with the digital format and the tablets that support them, said Mike Shatzkin, founder and CEO of the Idea Logical Company Inc., and a leading thinker about change in the book publishing industry.
“I think there is a definite shift taking place,” Shatzkin said. “Readers are increasingly comfortable with digital reading, and that is especially true with fiction and the kind of nonfiction where you start at page one and end at page last.”
Among the major publishers, digital sales account for 25 to 30 percent of all revenue, Shatzkin said, which probably means book publishers are selling up to half their stock as digital books, because an e-book generally costs much less to buy than a paperback or hard cover.
Most digital books sell for a few dollars, compared to $25 or more for a hardcover. Fiction is the primary driver of digital sales, although nonfiction is becoming popular as well.
There are two kinds of e-books. The most common are books that do little more then reflow text in a digital format, allowing readers to control the font size and style. “Readers are not expecting anything more than that. ‘Give me the words so I can read it,’ ” Shatzkin said.
The other are enhanced e-books that include content that goes beyond print, such as videos and web links. Those require a high level of creative expertise and are much more expensive to produce, and they have a much smaller market. They generally are niche publications, such as cookbooks, how-to manuals and, increasingly, textbooks used in education.
We’re seeing both in Maine.
Because digital publishing is inexpensive, there are countless titles vying for attention. The digital world has spawned a wave of self-publishing and small publishers like Portland-based Publerati, which specializes in works of fiction.
“The cost of delivering a book into the marketplace plummets when you do not have inventory to deal with,” Shatzkin said. “(Digital technology) has unleashed a flood of books that are mostly self-published, as well as digital-first publishers. We’re seeing a lot of authors who, rather than waiting to go through the process of finding an agent, finding a publisher and then waiting a year or so for that publisher to publish their book, can just upload a file to Kindle and go.”
LOCAL SUCCESS STORY
The drawback to that convenience is volume. The number of books is large, and the chance of success small.
But there are success stories.
One of them is James Hayman. He had two police novels published traditionally before “Darkness First.” One sold well, the other not so well, and he parted ways with his original print publisher.
Harper Collins offered to publish “Darkness First” as the first title on its digital-only imprint, Witness Impulse.
The book came out last fall, and quickly found an audience.
Hayman attributes the book’s success to several factors. First and most important, he thinks he wrote a great book. He also has the backing of a big-time publisher that is well-positioned in the book world and committed to its new digital adventure with an aggressive sales and marketing campaign.
Instead of traveling the country on a book tour, Hayman conducted dozens of e-mail interviews with bloggers and other writers from his home in Portland.
Witness Impulse priced “Darkness First” to sell, at $2.99 tops and sometimes for as little as 99 cents. In hardcover, the book would cost $25 or $30, and in paperback it would cost $8 to $15.
Hayman does not know how many copies of “Darkness First” he’s sold, but is certain it has outsold his previous titles by many. “Suffice it to say that in roughly four months the sales number is substantially higher than the combined sales of both ‘The Cutting’ and ‘The Chill of Night’ put together over four years,” he wrote in an e-mail.
As with many other writers, Hayman covets the tactile experience of holding a book and turning the pages. He was skeptical about digital publishing before “Darkness First,” but his experience with the book has altered his thinking.
When he learned that “Darkness First” was coming out as a digital publication, he bought a Kindle. To his surprise, he enjoyed digital reading.
“It’s light. Easy to read in bed. You can increase the size of the font, which helps my aging eyes which often had a hard time squinting at tiny print in paperback books. And since both my wife and I read in bed, I like the fact that you can read a Kindle with the lights turned out and so can Jeanne. That means neither of us nags the other about ‘turning the damned light out and letting me get some sleep.’”
McCreight comes at the digital publishing from a different perspective. He has been reading books electronically for years, starting with a PalmPilot hand-held device more than a decade ago.
In addition to his work as a publisher, McCreight also is a jewelry maker and educator. He makes fine crafts, and views his publishing enterprise as an extension of his artistic expression.
His primary complaint about one of the features of some e-books involves giving readers the opportunity to alter font and type sizes, which affects how the words appear on the page. McCreight’s first step when designing a page layout is choosing fonts, margins and headings, and he balks at sacrificing those design elements for the sake of a digital format.
At Brynmorgen, McCreight won’t allow that to happen.
Brynmorgen specializes in textbooks on metalwork and design. He and his son, Jeff, began converting the Brynmorgen catalog to e-books last year, and soon discovered it might be a business opportunity to offer their services to other authors and small-time publishers.
McCreight began a new branch of his company called Brynmorgen eBook Group, in which he artfully converts printed books into higher-end digital books. He started with the Brynmorgen catalog.
The e-books include all the content from the printed book, as well such enhancements as videos, web links and additional content. The goal is not to add content because technology allows it, but to make the e-book experience satisfying on a different level, he said.
With the added content comes added cost. Brynmorgen sells its digital books for a little less than half the price of the printed book. Generally, that means anywhere from $5 to $15 at Apple’s iBook Store.
“It’s exciting,” McCreight said, “and it’s a wonderful challenge. The goal of a book designer, or any designer, is to marry needs with aesthetics and function. I want it to look good, I want it to look new. And it also has to have a purpose.
“If you are designing a spoon, it still has to hold the soup.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: firstname.lastname@example.org