eBooks: Independent publishers resist re-colonising

20/09/2012 / Susan Hawthorne

When we at Spinifex Press in Australia started exploring the possibility of getting into eBooks around June 2006 we thought that by now the entire eBook industry would be well and truly on its way. We were early adopters and optimists. But getting in early has allowed us time to learn along the way without having to rush things. Our biggest hurdle is getting anyone in the media to talk to us about our experiences. It’s as if it’s only real when big publishers get in on the act. But the richness of publishing will not be replicated if small and medium sized publishers put their head in the sand about eBooks.

So how will eBooks affect the various industry players: authors, publishers, distributors, booksellers, libraries and readers. Because everyone is affected by this change.


Over the last few years we have seen a fear campaign put in place by writing organisations like the Australian Society of Authors, advising all members to retain at all cost their electronic rights. As a member of that organisation, I have gritted my teeth, written emails and spoken up in public about why this is the wrong approach for authors. The first reason is that few authors earn enough to live on their writing and eBooks can open up a whole new readership for authors and hence create new income streams.

Authors want to know that their work won’t be copied. While it is possible for digital works to be copied, the same can be said for a book or article. What is different is that photocopying is rarely traceable, while digital copying can theoretically be more easily traced. The Digital Rights Management (DRM) around eBooks can be set so that certain pages in a book can be read while others cannot. It can be set so that the book disappears after 15 minutes or an hour or three weeks according to the arrangements between authors and publishers. While arguably, DRM is hackable, this is most likely a problem of high-turnover mainstream items, the vast majority of which are published by multinationals. Small and independent publishers need to educate their readers – and authors can play an important role in this process. Readers should be reminded that authors deserve to be paid for their work just like anyone else. And if readers want a bibliodiverse publishing scene, one in which marginal voices can be heard, then independent publishers also need to be remunerated for their work.

Authors want to know if their book will be readily identifiable as their work. Unlike a printed book, an eBook can contain the copyright notice at the bottom of each page, so if it is printed out and used in courses it is clear where the selection comes from.

Authors want to know whether their books can be easily passed from one person to another or to many so that they don’t miss out on sales. These parameters can be set by the publisher – DRM again – and the retailer can also set whether the book can be read on one device or many. Readers understandably want to be able to read the same book on different devices (such as their desktop at work, a laptop at home, their mobile phone while commuting or on their eBook reader) and I can see no reason why this shouldn’t be made available to readers. It’s the same with a print book which is often passed between friends. This creates a buzz so that others go out and purchase the book.

Authors want to know if they will be paid. They should expect to receive a fair royalty on sales of eBook titles. There is still discussion at what level this should be set and my best bet is that it will vary quite a bit according to what the retailer/publisher split finishes up as. Given this, a royalty based on net receipts and set higher than print book royalties on recommended retail rates has been the direction. Suggestions of rates vary from 50% of net receipts down to 15%. At present most are set at around 25% of net receipts. Once eBooks become established in the market, there will be multiple new streams of income for authors. This will not happen overnight but over the next decade we should see significant growth in these areas. Income streams through the use of digital works in course packs, at all levels of schools and from digital library shelves is resulting in the development of systems for picking up the digital copying and borrowing of eBooks.

In the long run, authors are more likely to gain by having different editions of their work available – as print books and in a range of electronic formats. There is a small risk of copying, but the chances of catching more sales, and more usages of sections of books in compilations of digital text are greater. Fear is not a useful way of facing the future. Informing oneself, asking questions and watching your own behaviour in book buying, borrowing, copying and reading are useful tools for exploring these issues.


Just as authors want to know what their publisher is doing, publishers need to ensure that they have the right to create eBook versions. That means publishers and authors talking to one another and making an addendum to the contract to clarify the rights. This should be done both for text and images.

The buzz around digital publishing has been growing in recent years, from a murmur in 2006 through to a loud discussion among publishers, booksellers, authors and readers in 2011. It’s not a revolution, it is simply a new way of selling. Creating eBooks is not terribly hard since for the non-technically minded there are many companies around with the capacity to do conversions. What a small publisher is looking for is a company who can do things that can’t be done in house. Most of us don’t print our own books, so in the same way we can make arrangements with companies who can provide the expertise. A large multinational publisher can, if they wish, do all their own technical work while small to middling publishers are better off outsourcing. Part of the reason for this is that it is time consuming and capital intensive to do it yourself and when outsourced it can be purchased at reasonable rates and the publisher can decide which services on offer best suit their needs.

Among the services offered are conversion to different formats. In my view, a conversion house should offer a range of formats, among them Mobipocket/Kindle, Adobe/PDF, ePub, ePub for iPad (several versions) and Blio for Androids, as well as DAISY (audio), and DXReader (XML). There are a number of others that may suit particular publishers. Whatever formats are created now, publishers need to be aware that these will change and therefore it is necessary to keep up with digital developments in order to future proof one’s list.

A publisher wants reliable service completed in agreed timescales and with good quality. Formats should be able to be used on the main devices in the market. A publisher with one format will probably be losing sales and it is generally cheaper to create multiple formats in one hit than to come back later to add new formats. All intellectual property in the converted files should belong to the publisher not the conversion house.

An independent publisher with titles in English, based in a country with low costs could well have the advantage over publishers from countries with expensive currencies. Publishers need to consider the returns they can get and the costs involved. For example, an Indian publishing house might be able to generate good international sales this way; the same could be true for Spanish and French language publishers outside the European context (see Kulesz 2011, for more information on digital publishing in the South).

A small publisher may also need a hosting site and some conversion houses offer this service. This gives the publisher more DRM security on the files since many small publishers might not have enough bells and whistles available on their websites to hold multiple files in multiple formats.

Some conversion houses offer digital drop ship services (DDS) – that is they can arrange for multiple formats to be electronically delivered to overseas digital warehouses. For small presses with international distribution this is a benefit as it may reduce the amount of money spent on international freight, thereby reducing book miles. Having the files already in a digital format may also make it possible for publishers to arrange print-on-demand (POD) in another country, again reducing book miles. This way, relatively small print runs can be produced again reducing the overall risk in paying very large printing bills before books are even in the bookshops. Printers offering short run and POD services can mix and match according to the market need, reducing paper wastage and excessive pulping of books where too many copies have been printed. It can potentially make warehousing of print books more efficient.

A publisher wants to know that eBook sales will not cannibalise print book sales. While some nervousness remains about eBooks, having eBooks available tends to support and increase print books sales. The available formats will eventually balance out, but having a readable sample on the publisher’s website can be a great boon to people in remote and rural areas, to those with disabilities that prevent easy access to bookstores and libraries and to customers in countries where the publisher does not have print book distribution. That is, it increases the customer base for books and if well supported by marketing may reach into areas publishers had not even considered.

Publishers want to be paid in a timely way. Once a website is set up to make secure transactions publishers can be paid immediately for sales. This is fantastic for small publishers who usually have to wait somewhere between 60 and 120 days for payment from distributors in Australia and overseas.

Publishers can also sell granular eBooks, that is selling a chapter at a time or even just a few pages at a time. This is an ideal way to sell short fiction, poetry, essays in anthologies or collections of writing. Likewise new compilations of content from different books can be released by publishers, value adding to existing published material.


I am a supporter of self-publishing, indeed some of the most important books of the twentieth century were self-published. A self-published book can sell much more cheaply, not because self-publishers are nicer, but because self-publishers do not have overheads and other costs (including payments to authors) to factor in to the costings. But unless a self-publisher is prepared to do the editing, designing and marketing at the same level as a publisher, the quality of the work may suffer. There are always exceptions, and some self-publishers create very fine books. Authors who wish to become self-publishers cannot assume they own the rights to electronic files of out of print titles.

A large number of self-published books are selling from between 99c and $3.99. We need a survey to see how many of these books can keep selling over the long term.


A good distributor will also offer digital distribution to a small publisher or the publisher can make their own arrangements with digital distributors including library distributors or retail or aggregators of content. There are many new openings coming online. Get advice on contracts and ensure that all agreements are non-exclusive, that intellectual property remains with the author and publisher and negotiate the best deal possible regarding timeframes and discounts.

What distributors want is well organised materials in particular accurate metadata. Metadata is all the information on the book that a customer or bookseller would normally find in a catalogue: title, author, ISBN, format etc. It is worth spending the time to ensure that metadata is accurate – a typographic error in a title or author name could result in lost sales. Good metadata is the enhanced information about a book. The information should be sufficiently detailed so that the searchability of books is increased. Nielson did a survey of sales between 2007 and 2010. Basic metadata – ISBN and subject codes – sold twice as many copies as those titles missing this data. Full metadata (author bio, blurb, TOC, additional information) resulted in those books selling five times as many copies. This was the case for both backlist and frontlist titles (Nowell 2011). Thorough metadata should be produced for each title as it is converted. That is, metadata becomes part of the production process.

Distributors want to have clear instructions on Digital Rights Management – who owns the intellectual property in the book – author copyright, as well as image permissions and rights. They also increasingly need information on which territories the books can be sold into. If a publisher holds world rights, then the book can be sold across the globe, but if it is limited to a territory within a language group then the digital copies, just like the print copies, can be sold only in those territories. There should be no change in these matters. However, large publishers with offices in multiple locations publishers are notably resistant to splitting digital rights and some medium sized publishers have displayed the same tendencies. eBooks should not be an excuse for neo-colonial – or eColonial – practices.

As eBook sales increase, there will be new opportunities for small publishers to do their own distribution and thereby overcome one of the major impediments to earnings in traditional print publishing.


At present the bookselling world ranges from superstores to small independents. Booksellers do face a major challenge here because their bricks and mortar stores are set up to sell “real”, physical books. Some bookstores have active websites and these could be used to have direct relationships with publishers who have eBooks for sale. In Australia, independent booksellers have set up an eBook retailing system, Booki.sh and this has provided an important local outlet for Australian publishers alongside more established systems such as eBooks.com, ReadHowYouWant and Dymocks. Kobo, Google, Apple and Amazon are all engaged in talking to publishers about their retail expertise.

Booksellers could distinguish themselves by becoming experts in particular kinds of books and because their customer base for eBooks doesn’t rely on location like bricks and mortar stores do, and it doesn’t matter where the books are published or even how heavy or large the book is, booksellers could “sell” their expertise. New systems will need to be developed to create the best ways to search for the right book through the most knowledgeable retailer, but this is not beyond the imaginative leap of the good bookseller. That is, by electronically marketing the expertise of the bookstore. Perhaps new feminist bookstores will come back into existence or bookstores that specialise in environmental, political or science titles or craft, cookery, children’s books and the like (Booki.sh has a cookery outlet).

What booksellers want is eBooks available at a price to suit the local market. As with the real world book marketplace there will inevitably be some variations in price in different markets. Booksellers will want to have a certain number of pages viewable by the customer, just as one allows customers in a store to browse books on the shelf.

And since the systems will be automated, booksellers can stay open 24 hours for those readers who want to shop outside of usual bookshop hours. Booksellers could give loyal customers ways of a looking inside books and if they want to buy a print version of the book, have those books available in store too.

No doubt, there are challenges ahead for booksellers just as there are for publishers, but these are not unsurmountable.


Libraries, like booksellers, can extend their availability hours without having to have staff work a 24-hour clock. Multiple copies of eBooks can easily be checked out on loan and when the loan period comes to an end, the eBook disappears from the device. I expect it is possible to have extensions providing there aren’t others wanting to borrow the book.

Libraries can also offer readers ways of purchasing books or eBooks in the event of a library copy being unavailable for borrowing. Links to local booksellers could increase book sales through independent booksellers. Overdrive is currently working with Amazon on such a program, but specifically indie supply chains could be developed.

The availability of eBooks does away with the need for imposing fines for lost books, damaged books or plain old late returns. Libraries have reinvented themselves in the last decade or so as information experts. It is likely that readers who are uncertain about eBooks might have their first experiences with eBooks in libraries.


eBooks do not spell the end of print books. Books are a great way of reading and there are still plenty of us around who like reading books or who simply haven’t yet changed our reading habits. More and more reading devices are coming on to the market from Kindle to Sony to mobile iPads and a range of Adroid tablets. And this will not be the last device. The range of devices means that there are plenty of different ways for readers to experiment with reading eBooks.

What readers want is a range of titles that reflects their interests – eventually this range will probably outstrip print books. They want reading devices that are easy to handle, clear to read, without glare and with the possibility of shifting across devices when needed. They want eBooks to be available at a fair price. The push by some consumers for books that cost almost nothing neglects the royalties that need to be passed on to the author and ignores the enormous amount of work that goes into editing, designing, typesetting and marketing a book. So let’s not pretend that eBooks arrive out of nothing and cost nothing.

Readers need to aware of the reasons for different prices on books. From self-published low-priced books, to low-priced high-turner books and a reasonable rate on books that take years to produce and involve high levels of editorial or production work.

For the travelling reader who is used to the case overfilled with heavy and big books, eBooks might mean fewer injuries in the area of what I call “suitcase shoulder”. Maybe cases can get smaller and we can all travel a little more lightly.

Readers can get their shopping done at any time of day, while on the move and here’s hoping that they can move between reading devices. Even those who don’t have their own personal devices, will probably find ways through libraries, educational institutions, workplaces or friends to get access to eBooks.

International Independent Publishers

Colonisation and re-colonisation is alive and well. The very large retailers in the English-language world have undue weight and this will continue to be a problem for independent publishers in these territories. For other language areas independent publishers need to inform themselves of these developments. By being well informed, perhaps some of the errors of the English-language world can be avoided.

My advice is to start small, but to start. Begin by organising and clarifying your contracts and agreements. Choose a couple of titles that might be difficult to convert. When they are converted, check them carefully, especially the ePub and other free-flow formats for errors of spacing. Be especially alert for line spacing in fiction and formatting of poetry.

Create really good metadata for each title as it is produced, including subject areas, tables of content, reviews, excerpts and synopses (as well as the basic ISBN, format, extent, price, blurb and bio note).

When you have done that for from three to six titles, you’ll be ready to make your next round of decision-making.

Be prepare to make and re-make decisions. Doing nothing will result in being left behind. That is fine if it is intentional (not everyone wants eBooks), but to ignore the decision-making is not a useful approach. It might just mean you have to rush it later.

Downsides of eBooks

There are bound to be downsides. One might be that blockbuster publications -through massive electronic noise – drown out the interesting and exciting literature that comes out of the margins and from small presses who often take literary risks. On the other hand, it might also find new readers for these books especially considering the potential spread of information across the web – for instance, not having to find the physical copy of a book.

No one has a crystal ball at this early stage of eBooks. Perhaps print books will become a fashion statement after the first wave of eBook excitement passes. The shift isn’t going to stop just because some people in all these groups decide not to participate. For those prepared to put their toe in the water it can bring real excitement and whole new horizons to the practice of reading.


KULESZ, Octavio. 2010. “Digital Publishing in the South”. <http://www.alliance-editeurs.org/the-first-ever-study-on-digital >

NOWELL, Jonathan. 2011. “Metadata and sales data and the connections between the two”. eBooks around the world conference, Frankfurt Book Fair, 10 October.

Susan Hawthorne

About the author

Susan Hawthorne is a poet, novelist, aerialist, political activist and author of ten books. She grew up on a farm in rural New South Wales. She has degrees in Ancient Greek and Sanskrit as well as in Philosophy, and a PhD in Political Science and Women's Studies from the University of Melbourne. In 2009, Susan was an Asialink Literature Resident at the University of Madras, India and is Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville and an ASA Mentor. Susan is Director of Spinifex Press and has played a leading role among independent Australian publishers in innovative and eBook publishing.

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