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Unabridged Bookstore Inc. describes how the increase in e-books has affected its business.

Independent Chicago publishers view electronic books as complementary

by Alexa Harrison
March 11, 2010

As electronic readers and electronic books gain in popularity, some Chicago book publishers prefer to view them as complements—not competition—to their print counterparts.

“We are an industry in transformation,” said Dominique Raccah, CEO and publisher of Sourcebooks Inc., headquartered in Naperville, Ill. “I think we’re going to expand how books reach readers and…we’re re-conceptualizing what book publisher is and what book publishing itself is.”

Sourcebooks, which is the largest female-owned publisher in the country, publishes a variety of books from New York Times bestsellers to children’s books.

Sourcebooks and two other local publishers, Chicago Review Press Inc. and the University of Chicago Press, are releasing electronic formats along with their print titles.

Chicago Review Press has 202 titles in an electronic format; some are in a portable document format, or PDF, and others are in all three electronic formats — PDF, Amazon Inc’s Kindle, and electronic publication, or EPUB.

The EPUB is the format used in the reader made by Sony Corp. and will be used in Apple Inc.’s new iPad, slated for release April 3. Although the iPad falls into the tablet category, it acts as a hybrid gadget because one of its main functions will be for reading.

Kelly Wilson, an editorial assistant at Chicago Review Press, said that so far, e-readers have affected the publishing industry very positively.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily crippling any sales of print books in any way,” she said. “But we shall see going forward how well they work together.”

In fact, Wilson said that when comparing this year’s e-book sales with last year’s, there has been a dramatic increase.

“An increase of 1,261 percent to be exact,” she said. “This of course reflects the increase in number of e-books we’ve made available, but I think moreso it reflects the rapid growth of the e-book market.”

Two of Chicago Review Press’s recent titles, “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” and “Family Secrets: The Case That Crippled the Chicago Mob,” sold almost 30,000 copies combined and around 2,000 electronic copies, the majority of which were for the Kindle. The e-books sold for $19.95 each.

Chicago Review Press is steadily converting backlist titles into electronic formats, but Wilson said that the increase in electronic sales has not hurt the print sales and that customers often want both print and electronic editions of a title.

Forrester Research Inc., an independent company that researches and advises on business and technology, estimates that overall electronic book revenue in the U.S. will exceed $500 million in 2010. The Association of American Publishers reported in February that the year-over-year sales of e-books almost tripled. In 2009, e-books revenue was $169.5 million, compared with $61.3 million in 2008. Inc. has been the leader among e-readers, with its Kindle maintaining a 60 percent market share.  Amazon’s CEO and founder Jeff Bezos said in the company’s fourth-quarter release, “Millions of people now own Kindles. And Kindle owners read, a lot. When we have both editions, we sell six Kindle books for every 10 physical books.”

Amazon angered Macmillan Publishing, a group of publishers owned by German-based Verlagsgruppe Georg Von Holtzbrinck GmbH, when it refused to increase the prices of its e-books that it sells for $9.99. Amazon generally does not sell any e-book for more than $10.

“I think that a lot of publishers feel—certainly we feel—that can’t really support the selling of an e-book,” Wilson of Chicago Review Press said. “It’s certainly not a long term solution.”

On Jan. 31 Amazon removed all of Macmillan’s titles and published a memorable statement on its Web site.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles,” the statement began. “We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book.”

However, Macmillan titles have since returned, under an agreement that reportedly involves Amazon's selling Macmillan’s e-books at higher prices.

Chicago Review Press and Sourcebooks sell their e-books at about 80 percent of the list price of the print edition. Sourcebooks publishes around 300 books per year and has approximately 3,000 to 3,500 titles available now, with 1,800 of them in electronic formats.

“Frankly, I think e-readers are a passing phase,” Raccah said. She believes that the future of the industry lies with the iPad. She also described the announcement of the iPad and the controversy it spawned between Macmillan and Amazon as “one of the most important weeks in the history of publishing since Gutenberg.”

“Consumers prefer to have multipurpose devices,” she said. “I think what you’re going to experience on the iPad is the opportunity to do many different things.”

Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps agrees in her published work “The Battle for the e-book consumer.”

She wrote, “Consumers already want to read e-books across devices. Companies that want to 'win' the e-book consumer will provide services that support this behavior.”

The iPad will be able to access the Internet, handle e-mail, store photos, play music and access Apple’s own online bookstore.

Dean Blobaum, e-commerce and e-marketing manager for University of Chicago Press, is also excited about the iPad and the possibilities it presents.

“It’s nice to see another device out there capable of competing with the Amazon Kindle,” he said. “I don't think that Apple is going to limit themselves to commercial publishers. I think they want to have a whole spectrum of books and that includes the university press books.”

Apple has already discussed contracts with five major publishers including Macmillan, and textbook publishers are in talks to adapt their titles into EPUB format.

Nancy Rohlen, a 35-year-old Chicago resident, used to work at a publisher that distributes e-readers among its employees to reduce printing costs. However, Rohlen said using the device was not a pleasant experience.

"It takes a while to get used to," she said. "When you're buying an e-book it's not the same experience as going into a bookstore and browsing for a book." 

But at least one local book company, Academy Chicago Publishers Ltd., founded in 1975, does not sell e-books and most likely never will.

Publicity director Jacob Schroeder said, “We just have a traditional point of view. Our readership is already a more niche market as it is. They kind of like to maintain their relationship with their books. They’re not so much an Internet savvy group.”

Schroeder said sales have fluctuated and the company has had some of its strongest months in the past year. Academy Chicago Publishers sells tens of thousands of books per year with 200 titles ranging from older mystery titles and Victorian novels to early and mid-20th century novels.

Still, he agrees that e-readers are an asset to publishers, stating, “I think it’s just going to be a nice balance. Maybe it will become a bigger market. I don’t think they’ll ever erase books on the whole.”