A million ways to read

Share your book, read an unlimited number of them or just pay for one chapter. E-book publishing is becoming flexible in a bid to suit individual needs

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Guest post: Is Vanity Publishing Author Exploitation?

Rasana Atreya is the author of Tell A Thousand Lies (shortlisted for the 2012 Tibor Jones South Asia prize), The Temple Is Not My Father and 28 Years a Bachelor.  UK’s Glam magazine calls Tell A Thousand Lies one of their ‘five favourite tales from India.’ Valley Isle Secrets is her first foray into fan fiction set in the USA. Website.

Vanity publishing has arrived at publishing conferences and literary festivals, and this should be of great concern because vanity publishing is less about emulating trade (also called traditional) publishers, and more about convincing gullible authors to pay for services they do not need. Aspiring authors attend these conferences and festivals. The more they hear about these publishers, the more it gets legitimized in their minds.

You, as an author, owe it to yourself to be well informed. There is plenty of good information available on the Internet. Plenty of bad information, too. Learn to tell the difference. If you want to be a published author and have your book available for sale – either submit to trade publishers, or self-publish. If all you want is print copies of your book, go to your local printer. It works out much cheaper, and you also retain rights to your books. Stay away from anyone who wants money to publish you.

I cringe when vanity publishers call themselves ‘self-publishing’ companies. When you take the ‘self’ out of self-publishing, i.e. you – the author – do not upload the book yourself, it is no longer self-publishing. All that remains is vanity publishing.
I was a panelist on the nuts and bolts of self-publishing on Sept 12, 2015 in PublishingNext, Goa. This post is a combination of my take-away from there (a fabulous conference, btw), my comments as a panelist, and also my own impressions.

It getting harder for UK- and US-based vanity publishers to get naïve authors to fall for their ‘publishing packages’ – which can run into tens of thousands of dollars. This is thanks to activism on behalf of authors by platforms like Writers Beware and Preditors & Editors. As a result, vanity publishers have moved operations to Asia and Africa. That includes India, of course.

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Why are ebooks so expensive?

It’s a question that came to me and a friend over coffee when we started to discuss Flyte, the newly launched ebook section of online Indian giant Flipkart. Ebook is not a physical book, it’s not printed on paper, it does not take more money to produce more numbers. It does not need distribution channels which eat off a big cost pie of the publisher. It does not need retail space to be sold. In other words, producing ebooks brings down production, distribution and storage costs for the publisher.


Right? Readers would assume so. For them, ebooks are just another medium but doesn’t exactly mean they own a book. Once you as a reader buy it, you cannot share it with someone or resell it if you don’t like it. In a way as this New York Times article states: You have only rent it from an Amazon or iTunes or Flipkart and your rights on the product are severely limited. You cannot resell and it’s gadget limiting and app-dependent. Logically, if the reader was just renting a book, the ebook’s price should have cost something like a library’s book rental cost – atleast half of the cost of a new book.

Then let us look at what it costs to make an ebook. Most Indian publishers, even the ones who have MNC counterparts, outsource their typesetting work (What is typesetting) to a third-party where plates are made digitally and then a physical final converts into a physical book at the printing press. Since the work is outsourced, the final typeset plates might have been deleted from the printer’s computer or put into raddi . So even if the editors and authors exchange drafts of Word documents and emails, the final version of the book (the typeset one with spacing, font setting and other stuff, etc) is not there in the hand of a publisher, especially in the case of older books, which have already been published say five years ago.

Since most of Indian publishers, especially in non-English languages are still producing books in outsourced press, to convert those into ebooks, they have to incur costs on getting them converted from paperback to OCR (optical character recognition) and then have it professionally proofread for scanning errors. In case they don’t have display rights or digital rights, they might have to procure them. This is a huge roadblock for many smaller traditional Indian publishers.

Then there are new costs associated with producing ebooks. As a New Yorker article put it:

“E-books are cheaper to produce, by about twenty per cent per book, because they do away with the cost of paper, printing, shipping, and warehousing. They also eliminate returns of unsold books—a significant expense, since thirty to fifty per cent of books are returned. But they create additional costs: maintaining computer servers, monitoring piracy, digitizing old books. And publishers have to pay authors and editors, as well as rent and administrative overhead, not to mention the costs of printing, distributing, and warehousing bound books, which continue to account for the large majority of their sales.”

Another article in Huffington Post sums up the costs that it takes to produce an ebook from a publisher’s perspective.

1) Software to create an ebook – Adobe Indesign (One copy costs $699), Photoshop and other softwares to create and edit. Going digital in other words.

2) Cost of hosting the ebooks – maintaining servers themselves or paying rental for third-party hosting service

3) Paying hefty royalty to the new retail giants – “Amazon keeps a bit over 30 percent of every book, because it also charges a “delivery fee” above and beyond the percentage it makes. B&N keeps about 35 percent. Google kept 48 percent on my last report.”

4) More royalty to the author (somewhere between 15-25 percent).

Both New Yorker and Huffington Post’s articles are from old-style publisher point of view. When faced with ebooks, old publishers are panicking and even resorting to illegal measures. In the USA last year, book publishers S&S, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan and HarperCollins were sued by the Justice department for colluding to raise ebook prices. Out of these three (S&S, Hachette and HC) coughed up money and gave them back to the US customers who had bought up ebooks from 2010-2012. The USA scene happened because publishers were afraid that ebooks will kill the traditional market practices. Some of the publishers were following the traditional market pricing as they simply were in deep sea—not knowing how to proceed in the ebook market.

The Indian market is still nascent. Most Indian publishers shy away from ebook markets citing piracy fears and the fear of the unknown—technology. This fear converts itself into a new cost, a new way of thinking, a new business model. Copying what you were doing traditionally is not enough to keep you afloat. And they are being pushed by demand from readers who have tablets in their hands and want to see the book on various mediums —different ebook devices, audio, print. This generation likes to be served on individual plates. Their way or the highway.

How does one bridge the gap between the MRP that a publisher wants to put on an ebook vs what the reader is willing to pay for it? Maybe a traditional publisher will come up with a new business model which cuts costs. Or maybe we will see exclusive ebook-selling publishers sprouting around us. The Indian publishers need to drastically change their business models, figure out their costs and see the writing on the wall, that they have to change with this paperless times. Else perish.

As for authors, especially people like me who are just starting in the career of creative writing and storytelling, the more mediums I can get to my reader to read on, the merrier for me. Till readers are coming do I care how they read that particular story? I hope the publishers catch up to this reality soon.

Your favourite books, on the digital highway


Forget just reading—now you can experience books with soundtrack, videos, animation and games

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced earlier this month that it would stop publishing its 32-volume print edition. Forever. A month ago, in February, a digitally enhanced version of the Game of Thrones, the first book in the much-touted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, was released as an eBook for iPad. The “book” is much more than a reading experience. It comes with a pop-up column of a glossary of characters and a dynamic map which tells you where all the series’ characters are at any point in the book. To add to the fun, there are clips from the audio book. To call it a book is like asking Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to get you a cup of coffee.

The book has evolved into a multimedia, multi-touch, customizable offering with the advent of touch-screen devices, especially the launch of the iPad. This evolved version can talk back to you, entertain you with additional videos and references and help you explore itself in non-linear ways. For want of a better phrase, the industry is calling these “enhanced eBooks”.

“Enhanced eBooks are not eBooks, or digital versions of books,” explains Sriram Panchanathan, 41, the Bangalore-based senior vice-president of Digital Solutions, part of the US-based Aptara Inc. “They are something else altogether. They have additional features to an eBook that complement or add to the reading experience.” Aptara works with some of the biggest publishers worldwide, like John Wiley & Sons, Pearson and Random House, and digital publishers like Inkling (www.inkling.com) to create digitally enhanced eBooks of their content. Their most recent titles include The Professional Chef, The Culinary Institute of America for John Wiley & Sons and Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, a self-published title.

According to Panchanathan, you can completely change the experience of reading a book on a touch-screen gadget with extra elements like audio, video, multimedia, scripted animation, a dictionary, or an interactive interface. “A year ago, publishers started with enhancing children’s and educational books with graphics, animations and audio and video but now we see a demand from them to convert non-fiction categories like cookbooks, books on gardening and even biographies,” he says. Take the example of the forthcoming enhanced title from Penguin of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable. It’s a biography of the legendary black activist, features rare archival video footage of his life and photos, and has an interactive map of Harlem, Manhattan, to better visualise where he came from.

What’s helped obviously is that publishers now have the tools to embed multimedia in a digital book in a fast and cost-effective way. Epub 3, the latest update to the open eBook format .epub, and its counterpart, Amazon’s Kindle Format 8, were both released in October. While the .epub version 3 works for almost all touch-screen eReaders, including Android-based tablets and the Nook, Cobo and Sony tablets, Kindle Format 8 works only for Kindle Fire devices. Both formats use HTML 5, which can be used to embed multimedia elements directly into the eBook file, making it look much like a website. “This reduces the cost and size of an eBook and gives creators, the ability to experiment with styling, animation and scripting,” says Panchanathan.

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