The Seybold Scuffle

As panelists brandished tablet-sized, next-generation Nokias (“wireless ebooks will be a reality in 2002,” one e-prophet intoned) and others dusted off vintage ’90s web nostrums (“go where the traffic is”), there was also some refreshing digital realism on hand for the Seybold Seminars at the Javits Center on February 21. While much time was spent pondering the “intellectual property supply chain,” and scheming to use digital workflows to boost productivity (or, as it was baldly put, “We’ve got to start thinking of ways to turn those brains into money”) some publishers have thrown caution to the bitstream — and wound up with impressive results.

Barbara Kline Pope, Director of the National Academy Press, brazenly offers free online browsing of the complete texts of 2,500 titles (though there’s a charge for printing a copy). The press is now taking a whopping 40% of its orders over the web, the bulk being scholarly titles; the Joseph Henry Press trade imprint is still mainly sold via brick-and-mortar stores. In an attempt to answer the e-riddle of the millennium (i.e. “Will they pay?”) the press has mounted an elaborate online survey project in association with the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. The findings? “Unbundling” books and offering each chapter as a separate download got the big thumbs up. “If we unbundled our content we could have a major market expansion,” Pope said, adding that consumers were willing to pay for such content at a 110% premium of the printed book price. Now, armed with a Mellon research grant, the press is looking extensively into free online browsing and other print-vs.-PDF conundrums. Check it out at nap.edu.

Meanwhile, free content was the mantra of the day for Jennifer Gold, Director of New Media for Rough Guides. “We figured out how to actually make money from our site,” she reported, “without alienating users.” That holy grail was conquered after a site relaunch late last year (see roughguides.com) which posted the full content of over 50 titles online, plus a whole host of reader-contributed features such as personal travel journals and photos. Throw in partnerships with travel goods purveyors — call ’em “contextual commerce opportunities” — and you’ve got profits. “We note sales of our print books have gone up,” Gold added. “They haven’t been cannibalized by our free content.”

There ensued a vigorous scuffle among ebook vendors, with Franklin President Barry Lipsky boasting that he’s shipped 27 million devices to date, and adding, “We’re one of the few companies that pays publishers in excess of $500,000 a year in royalties.” For her part, Microsoft’s Julie Blackwell Stamstad plugged Microsoft Reader 2.0, noting that the program fixes a litany of bugs and has an installed base of 6 million. Then Mike Segroves, Director of Business Development for Palm Digital Media Group, deemed Palm “the leading ebook platform” with 21 million Palms in use today. The company currently offers 4,000 titles, and sells to about 100,000 customers, who download 10,000 volumes per week. And they keep coming back: 49% of first-time Palm ebook buyers become repeat customers within 30 days. Meanwhile, they are getting into the e-galley business, thanks to a chance meeting at the seminar, where conversion service provider Publishing Dimensions introduced the new site DigitalGalley.com. Segroves was so taken by the idea of supplying advance reader’s copies that he offered Publishing Dimensions the necessary DRM to ensure encryption. Contact Ken Brooks ([email protected]), or Kathleen Doody ([email protected]) for more information.

And for a final take-home message? When you’ve got to compete in a virtual world, it pays to keep your overhead low. “The goal for me and for any proper publisher is to be as close to virtual as you can be,” said e-reads’ honcho Richard Curtis, noting that his e-publishing firm outsources everything conceivable, including scanning, conversion, proofreading, and e-tailing. “The average trade publisher’s profit margin is 2% or 3%. Our profit margin is 40%,” he continued. “I would tell publishers to strip down to their underwear.”