A few years ago, I had the opportunity to begin involved in a team spearheading an e-book publishing project for my organisation, a local university publisher.
Sensing the rise in digital publishing, the university decided that moving forward e-books were to be part of its agenda. With e-books, the quest for global distribution of knowledge would be put on pedestal. Contents could go places beyond the local shores without restrain in logistics and physical infrastructures. And distribution could be traced in real time, and through merely a few clicks.
As the official press for the university, the onus is on our team to deliver things. A small team was formed. Discussions after discussions took place. Ideas were thrown. Plans were drawn. And coffees and curry puffs went down the throat like nobody’s business.
We were met with early hurdles.
Where e-books are concerned, there was no institutional publisher we could get mentoring from. No local university publisher could guide us on the production and distribution of e-books, while overseas publishers seemed to be beyond reach. The only best help were a few e-book publishing models from conferences and Internet sources that we knew couldn’t fit well into our grandiose scheme.
The truth is that, since long way back, we had been tinkering with e-book ideas but the efforts were pretty much disjointed, and rather directionless.
So, we had to bulldoze things through, making mistakes here and there along the way, took few steps backwards, and moved again. I remember the team going through the pain of creating new processes, identifying business partners, setting up in-house e-book standard, late night tele-conferencing and negotiating with northern-hemisphere vendors, lining the team up for FTP tasks, assigning roles, and evaluating outsourced works, among others. All these were new to us.
The arduous work did eventually pay off.
Within two years, over 200 (and counting) of our titles, back and current, were converted into e-books, and have been made available in all world’s regions from Southeast Asia all the way to America. We became the first (and as of the writing, still the only) Malaysian university that broke into global e-book market, with our e-book titles in Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Snapplify, Trajectory and many others.
It is a different feeling when someone from Brazil just purchased your e-book. Certainly, the whole thing is an enlightening and exhilarating experience.
If I may share what I learn from this experience of publishing e-books, following are 5 things:
1. Start with vision
Setting off into an uncharted territory requires a vision. What is it that you and your organisation intend to achieve out of it? Why e-books?
Someone needs to take the lead and get things going. The stakeholders—depending on your organisation, these would be different and may include the board members, shareholders, top management and so on—need convincing. Embarking on a project that would consume time, energy and other resources would need a consensus.
In our case, convincing our major stakeholder, the university, was less than an issue, since the decree to explore e-books came from the institution itself. But some other local scholarly publishers found themselves in a rather precarious situation. Despite the best effort in convincing their institution of the future of e-books, not much support was forthcoming. This would hinder progress.
At that time, a few commercial publishers had also jumped into the e-book bandwagon, realising its potential as a future game changer.
2. E-books involves changes in processes and workflows
E-books require a major revamp on a publisher’s existing workflows. This, one must accept. If a publisher considers its current publishing workflow solid, then extending it to include e-books could be a tricky endeavour. You can expect some resistance from the team in making a shift in the processes. If you are in a government set up, you know things don’t move quite fast.
The new processes must take account your back, current and future titles. Those very old publications whose digital copies (for prints) have been lost should also be considered, especially if the old titles offer potential values in digital form.
A publisher having an e-book project in mind would find it noteworthy that different workflows would apply if they want to publish their titles as print only, print + e-books, or e-books only. The framework for each output must be clear and intact.
3. Good team matters
As cliché as it sounds, executing e-book strategy requires a good team. The team does not have to be big. But it must be functional. Having one or two outstanding individuals would not hurt. In fact, it could make all the differences.
Initially, our e-book team consisted of a few people, and as we progressed we morphed into a bigger team to suit different functions. Note that we didn’t create a new e-book unit; all the people in the team were (and are) still with their division undertaking their core duties. They were not taken off from a working unit and given a completely new role. E-book tasks are additional to their existing functions.
We fought and argued often. Sometimes we traded barbs and tantrums. But as we went along, we learnt to work more effectively as a unit.
4. Sometimes it takes money to make money
Creating e-books require technical skills. It is not simply a case of getting out a PDF output file from a MS Word document, which can easily be accomplished using the “save as” or “print to” function.
It has always been our philosophy to publish books of high quality (through tight processes and highly-trained personnel), and naturally the e-book project must be subject to the same quality control.
Compared to text-based novels, academic contents comprise plenty of illustrations, tables and strange characters. The corresponding e-book production would require a different level of care. If we ignore this, the output can be a total mess.
Getting an e-book output, and in volume, takes time, energy and resources. It’s not that we did not try to do it ourselves. We did. But things were progressing at a snail’s pace. In house, a rudimentary e-book file took weeks to complete.
An alternative way, in which we opted for, is to partner with conversion partner that helped us to produce e-books multiple times faster. That worked out quite well for us, even though this would mean cost. But it was worth it.
5. When you do a good job, people seek you out
After successfully launching our e-books in the global market, we breathed sigh of relief. It was only a matter of time before words got out that a publisher from country’s north achieved a significant breakthrough in e-books.
Suddenly, publishers began inquiring and showing interest. Some dropped by at the office unexpectedly for guides. At some point, requests were snowballing that we had to politely decline a few visits. But we were honoured to have played part as their mentor and taught them a thing or two in e-book publishing.
Still, until today, we are still learning. The e-book ecosystem changes quite rapidly and since we are already in the thick of the action, we had to adapt and respond fast to the changing market.
And there is no room for complacency. For us, it’s business as usual.