Losing Your Illusions About Selling Ebooks On Your Own Site

March 24, 2015

Editorial by Deborah Emin in Publishing Perspectives

Deborah Emin of Sullivan Street Press

Deborah Emin of Sullivan Street Press discusses the challenges of selling ebooks from her own web site and why she moved to using an ebook distributor.

As many publishers and writers are discovering, the ways in which e-books are sold to and read by readers have been altered by the rules and technical limitations of our various channels of distribution. We’ve been thrown out of our comfort zone and struggle to make sense of this digital world. Because, believe me, it is still terra incognito to the majority of readers and writers.

The many obstacles this new world creates can put small companies like mine —Sullivan Street Press — out of business in quick order. We began as an ebook only publisher, selling our titles from our site.

Starting with Assumptions

When we began business, we assumed that ebook buying would be as attractive to readers as downloading music and music videos had been. We falsely assumed that these early users of ereading devices would be tech savvy and curious about what possibilities resided in these devices. We also assumed that the environmental benefits of ebooks would be understood and embraced.

We imagined that digital publishing would lead to a new world of book design which would make possible new ways of storytelling, that innovative use of media would ultimately lead to a merger of game technology and narrative techniques.

Rather we still live in that same world we lived in when Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2007. We have text on a screen. The radical vision we had hoped for has not appealed to many others in publishing.

Yet we in publishing keep blustering our way through the ebook marketing thicket ignoring all these creative people we work with. We could have changed how stories are told or information is shared if we’d recognized the inherent possibilities these digital devices afford us. There are two problems that arose in this vision of our future — the ways to monetize this innovative work had no precedent, and second, the alteration, hybridization, of storytelling has not received a formal credential from the owners of the large publishing companies. That is, no one had both the deep pockets and the means of distribution to show how to make this possible and profitable.

We are therefore left in this situation I described above — selling ebooks to a market we don’t yet have enough experience selling to while simultaneously locked into systems of distribution that feel rigid and confining.

The facts are the same. None of us have lived long enough in this new publishing environment to fully understand it. We’ve had more than 500 years to adapt to bound books. We’ve had less than a decade to adapt to digital publishing.

Some best practices have developed for now which favor those with a large enough list to be profitable partners with the large retailers. For us very small fry, needing to keep true to our mission, while also remaining in business, has meant finding partners to work with who also are willing to invest in what I see is our untapped potential for success.

Learning Valuable Lessons

When we tried to sell our ebooks from our website, we learned some valuable lessons. First, selling in a non-native environment is time consuming. But more important than that, we were pushing ourselves onto our readers, hoping to develop a relationship. Readers don’t bond with publishers. They occasionally respond to writers if the writer can spare the time to create those relationships. And web designers truly do not understand the book business and are frustrated by the demands selling from a site makes on their design considerations.

We have therefore this incredibly rich world we could be exploring but we don’t. Rather than producing new curricula to teach writing students about these creative tools, the industry’s shift to digital book businesses has been completely ignored in most MFA programs. Our creative efforts have, to me, shown a lack of understanding of what we have in our hands almost every waking minute and how it could be transforming education, politics, poverty, religion. You name your area of interest, the possibilities are more fruitful if we’d work in that direction together.

Partnering with an Ebook Distributor

We’ve looked towards our future and decided to partner with an ebook distributor who will work to get our books into as many places as possible, making it then our job to push lots of new books into the market as best we can. And to teach those struggling, like us, to change how publishing sees itself in this digital realm still so young and unknown.

INScribe Digital has become that partner able to push our titles as far and as wide as possible. They are efficient, affordable and practical in ways we could not do on our own.

When I first spoke to Larry Norton at INScribe Digital, I didn’t think we could afford to work with them or that we would receive the amount of support they provide. Now, I realize that we can’t stay in business and push the e-book publishing models we foresee without their tools being at our disposal.

For us to pursue this vision of what ebook publishing can be, we can’t spend our time struggling to get our books into the market. We need to write about and teach this vision in concert with those who can do better than we can to spread that news.