No Country for Old Media: Why Technology Is Important to Small Publishers—BNC Tech Forum '09 Intern Report

Before I joined the BookNet gang as their wily intern, I was (and still am) a coordinating editor at a small literary press. Admittedly, I had seen the electronic book and the online world to some extent, a dystopian literary landscape composed entirely of celebrity scandal pics and text-message shout outs to various boo’s across the cyber-sphere.

Okay, a bit of an exaggeration. I saw the online world as a handy tool to help promote books and stay in communication with authors, media, and my company. But along came BookNet, and the phoenix of data arose from the flames… okay, getting carried away again.

I learned a lot. The BNC Technology Forum 2008 was a great conference and really opened my eyes to the possibilities of the future, and specifically how small presses have an incredible advantage right now. Publishers need to embrace the new mediums and prosper. In that vein, I’ve created a list of five things every small publisher should consider when evaluating their place in this brave new world.

Caveat: Coming from a bibliophile’s perspective (as many of the crowd were at Tech Forum), I can’t say I see a day when no one sells books. What I can say is that the medium is rapidly changing and successful publishers will adapt.

1. Make e-books.

Sounds obvious, right? It isn’t! It wasn’t to me. Lots of publishing folk see a day when everyone reads off of a screen in their jet car on their way to the robot factory and even accept this future as inevitable. And yes, you, my small publishing friend, could wait a very long time before your business model necessitates publishing eBooks. Or you could start doing it now and start taking chances on ePublishing innovations and conceptual marketing that will give you a sales edge, garner you attention, and produce a lot of possibilities for online marketing.

For instance: Offer a download code for every physical copy bought. Make a chap book an email subscription service leading up to its release. Once you have the content (and aren’t afraid to use it) there is unlimited potential.

2. Use EPUB. Do not use Digital Rights Management (in my opinion, anyway. BookNet does not necessarily share my views and I am completely acting alone in saying that I think DRMs are a bad idea for small publishers. If you are Pearson or Random House, go for it).

EPUB is becoming the standard. It’s supported by most eReaders (aside from Kindle, which is not in Canada yet anyway) and a lot of publishers. If you’re small, chances are you do not have means to convert all of your books to 6 or 7 different formats.

In no way ever should an independent publisher have anything to do with Digital Rights Management(DRM). The last thing you want is to limit your readership in any way. This was a message repeated throughout the conference (though oddly not by any large publishers). DRMs limit your reader’s ability to transfer devices and only hinders their experience. If they can’t have a book on their iPod touch, Black Berry and laptop, they are going to be annoyed and either a)break your DRM and/or b) not buy your books.

Also, book sharing increases your readership. As a small press, this is the most important thing. If you have a nice eBook, someone reads it and passes it on, you have one more person who knows you, your brand, and your author. And then if they also pass it on and suddenly it’s up on a torrent site and millions of people are stealing all the gold from your pockets, you need to wake up from your dream and stop talking to Lars Ulrich.

For more information, check out the International Digital Publishing Forum’s website at

3. Understand the tech.

This was brief point made by, well, many people, but in those words by Neelan Choksi of Lexcycle. Publishing really hasn’t changed that much technologically since Gutenberg (and I’m sure some people will jump on me for that). Computers have come into the picture, certain printing variances and design standards have changed, but a lot of the core elements have remained the same. The endgame was creating a printed book. And this is still the way a lot of publishers (and authors) think. That is changing. For the first time, we are experiencing a huge shift in product and how we promote it.

As well, marketing is changing. Now with applications such as Facebook and Twitter (to name two very standard ones) and an increased online presence, there are new and effective ways to publicize your books. Have someone on your team that is up to date with not only eBook technology, but who pays attention to new online initiatives and can navigate the web easily.

Knowing a few standard practices can save you money and make your publishing company better.

Understanding ONIX and being able to update and manage your metadata on your own is going to give you an edge. BookNet offers free tools to help you do this, so really, there’s no excuse.

4. Readers first.

The internet is for communication. This is changing the role of the audience from a passive intake system to a collaborator, an in-your-face eMob who demand to be heard and be acknowledged.

Hugh McGuire of LibriVox (an online, volunteer-based, public domain audio book resource) made the point that people love books. And people want to talk about books. So provide them a place to talk about your books. Have a message board on your site, have several online profiles, and develop some interesting content to get your readers talking.

Neelan Choski made the point that more than ever, authors need to promote themselves. This is not to lift any responsibility from the shoulders of the publishers, but to encourage authors to get into contact with their readership. The internet has made everyone expect accessibility and transparency from their icons, and love you for it. So don’t be afraid to show up on message boards and create a goodreads page and send update emails all of the time, because your readers want to hear from you.

5. If you define yourself by the medium, you’re not thinking about publishing in the right waySteve Paxhia, The Gilbane Group

Mr. Paxhia was the first speaker at the conference, and for me, really did a great job of preparing us for what was to come that day. There was a lot of information to be thrown at us, and while for some it was old hat (by old, I mean approximately 6 months), I think a lot of people were introduced to a very new and very exciting way to look at publishing.

As I mentioned in my third point, publishing is changing and a printed book is no longer the final outcome. But was it ever? On the business side, it’s been taking a person’s writing, whether it be story, article, poem, or list of every black metal band ever and finding a way to sell it. I wonder how stressful the change from scroll to cut book was. I bet all four or five people who were literate were angry.

On the creative side, publishing is a way to tell stories. A person has never started a writing project for the sole purpose of having a 6x9 block of 300 sheets of paper with printed ink on it. That was always just the inevitable outcome of written creation. The actual book as an object is (oh god, don’t kill me, Robert Bringhurst) beside the point.

The point of publishing is to share information. The publisher’s role is to become a conduit of that information through first putting the work through a rigorous editorial process and then releasing that information into the world.But! Do not neglect your customers. If they want leather bound illuminated books, and can pay for them, by all means, skin a goat and get some gold leaf.

So there you have it, five fascinating tips for change. The tools are out there and people are using them to find books and read books. And, in fact, they are angry that we aren’t taking advantage of them. Take a look at the report from publishing blog So Misguided, about a recent South by Southwest publishers panel called New Think for Old Publishers.

For a very, very persuasive argument on why we as small publishers should look to tech for building our programs, read the twitter page, filter #sxswbp.