The rise of e-books has caught many small publishers off guard — they've had to learn how the technology works, acquire digital rights, create a new marketing strategy and even scan in older titles, all without knowing how successful e-books will eventually become.
At the Minnesota Historical Society Press and Borealis Books, the process happened faster than for most publishers its size because of funds from the state's Legacy Amendment.
The Historical Society's publishing arm, which distributes a couple dozen new titles each year, received $52,692 in the last two years to publish 125 e-books, which represent more than a quarter of all the books it has in print. Another $18,000 from the Legacy's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund went to the publisher in the current fiscal year to provide e-book versions of new titles the publisher deems fit for the e-book market.
Read a list of the 10 top-selling e-books published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press with help from Legacy Amendment money.
E-books currently make up only 3 percent of total sales for the publisher, said Pamela McClanahan, director of Minnesota Historical Society Press and Borealis Books. McClanahan is confident that percentage will grow, but no one really knows how fast.
"It's a big risk, and that's hard in a financially tight time," she said, noting that many small publishers have been operating "close to the bone."
McClanahan said the publisher has tried to use the Legacy money to give some of its older titles new life as e-books, including a series of best-selling novels by Vilhelm Moberg about Swedish immigrants that were first published in the '50s and '60s. All four of the novels are among the top-selling e-books for the publisher so far, with "The Emigrants" at the top of the list selling 530 e-books through April.
More than half of the e-books the Minnesota Historical Society Press has published in the last two years are so-called "backlist" titles, most of which had to be scanned into a computer.
Optical character recognition software was then used to turn images of the pages into text, so it could be altered or edited. One of the most time consuming parts of the process is going back to check every word to make sure it matches the original text, said Daniel Leary, design and production manager for the press.
The press has relied on volunteers for much of that work, which has allowed editors to publish more e-books and experiment with two iPad apps. Leary said the time consuming process of proofreading and acquiring the digital rights to photos published in the print version of a book have been priorities — especially after seeing some of the other e-books on the market that were riddled with errors and had blank spaces where publishers had failed to acquire rights to images.
"We've seen a lot of dodgy products out there," Leary said.
While e-books help publishers save some on printing, shipping and warehousing costs, some smaller publishers have struggled with the startup costs of offering their titles as e-books, said Matt Mullin, community relations manager for Digital Book World, an online e-book publishing community.
And perhaps an even bigger challenge will be marketing their books, Mullin said.
"It's entirely possible for a small publisher's books to be completely lost in the ether," he said. "If you have a book that was published 10 years ago, how are people going to discover it? How are people going to buy it?"
But Mullin said publishers who refuse to embrace e-books will have "an increasingly tough time in the future as shelf space disappears."
McClanahan acknowledged it's been a big change for the Minnesota Historical Society Press to go from mostly marketing to booksellers to marketing e-books directly to consumers. But she said an important part of the publisher's audience includes the demographic embracing e-books — the 50-plus crowd.
FINDING E-BOOK READERS
Though marketing and distributing e-books might be a challenge for small publishers, there's also opportunity, said Ben Barnhart, editor for the Minneapolis-based Milkweed Editions.
"With a print edition of a book, a publisher who has more money may leverage that to make sure the book is in every store in the country, whereas a smaller publisher couldn't afford to do that," said Barnhart, who serves as president of the Minnesota Book Publishers' Roundtable. "With e-books, they're accessible everywhere, equitably."
Barnhart said most Minnesota publishers are entering the e-book market with their new titles, but he said fewer have tried publishing e-books from their backlists, making the Minnesota Historical Society Press stand out.
Barnhart predicts e-book sales will continue to grow. "We've really hit a sweet spot in having a lot of the devices as well as a lot of content," he said.
But how long it will take for people will adopt e-books en masse is still an open question, Leary said. He said iPads are still a luxury item that many readers can't afford. And there's still a lot of readers who haven't accepted the concept of e-books, he said.
"It's a confusing time right now because we expect digital content to come to us for free, like most Internet content does," Leary said.
To encourage more downloads, the press made its first iPhone/iPad app — for a book called "Dad's View of the Twin Cities" — available for free. It's been downloaded 1,200 times. Historical Society officials will watch carefully how people respond to the publisher's second iPad app: a children's book by Kevin Kling and Chris Monroe complete with animations and sounds. The "Big Little Brother" app will be released in November for $9.99.
While they're expensive to develop, offering apps is the next logical step for publishers to make, Barnhart said. Apps can include features such as author interviews, additional author footnotes, video or animation, especially in the case of children's books, he said.
"It allows a developer and publisher the opportunity to change and re-conceive how the book exists and how the reader encounters it," Barnhart said. "It's also an opportunity to continually refresh and add content to a book. We've never had an option to do that before."
(Minnesota Public Radio received $2.6 million in Legacy arts funding during the last two-year state budget cycle.)