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HarperCollins E-Initiatives, an Interview with Ann Allessi

Ann Allessi, Publisher, HarperMedia, of HarperCollins agreed to answer some questions about HarperCollins eBook initiatives. Out of all the major publishers, I think HarperCollins is really making an effort to give romance readers digital content. Every month, virtually every Avon romance is released in ebook format at the same time the paper copy is released. Every month, one or more romance author sees her backlist released in digital format. For an ebook aficianado like myself, this is a very welcome news.

HarperCollins also launched a unique e-venture last fall with its Fanlit program. The completed Fanlit book was made available for free for anyone who had signed up to participate. For those who haven’t, the novella can be purchased at most e-tailers like Fictionwise.

If I would encourage HarperCollins to do anything differently, it would be to offer its books at 40% off like Simon&Schuster.

What is Harper Collin's mission for digital publishing?

Harper's mission for digital publishing is to best serve our authors, which I would say is the overall house mission. We don't apply a completely different approach to e-book publishing, but rather try to extend the maximum effort we make to see each author's vision reach readers, whether that is via a hardcover, mass market, audiobook or e-book. It's all about getting the author's work in front of a reader.

Harper Collins is doing some great initiatives in the e-book market such as advanced releases and backlists. Will you be doing more of advanced releases in the future?

It's very likely that we will continue experiment with an e-book releases in advance of the print book. Our initial efforts have been fun to publish and well received.

What is the goal for digitizing the backlist? I.e., will this happen for every Avon author?

We're working very hard to make all Harper books, both frontlist and backlist, available as e-books.

Pricing is a big issue with ebook readers. S&S sells their books for 40% off and other publishers don't offer any discount. Harper Collins falls in the middle with a 20% discount. Is that the pricing we will see in the future or do you think that HC will lower the price?

Right now we we're not inclined to adjust our pricing. It is, of course, something that we keep a close eye on.

Can you share with us some of the decision making process as it related to ebook initiatives such as the advanced releases or the pricing structure?

HarperMedia is structured in a way that allows our e-book editors to work very closely with our trade book editors. We strategize on an individual author basis, with ideas coming from both the HarperMedia and Harper trade editors. If we think an advance release, or a special pricing effort like a frontlist title bundled with backlist titles will bring more readers (of both the e-book and print book) to the author, we work together to see those ideas through.

What other e-initiatives can you share with us? Or what can we look forward to from HC on the “e” frontier? I.e., HC is offering a “search inside the book feature”. Will that be accompanied by a per page price and if so, will the full ebook be priced on a per page basis?

These are the questions that keep us busy every day! I hesitate to make any predictions; things are expanding and changing so quickly in our corner of the publishing landscape. We are working on a few new e-book initiatives — this area of publishing demands constant change and expansion. I can't give you specific details today, but I think the recent Avon FanLit initiative, and subsequent FanLit e-book, are good examples of how we're working to keep our digital formats front and center.

Who decides and on what basis which books are released in ebook format? I.e., the Lois McMaster Bujold book, The Sharing Knife was not released in ebook format. As a followup, is there anything a reader can do to get a book released in ebook format?

Many people decide if a book will be published as an e-book: the publisher, the author, and the author's representatives. If a reader wants a book published as an e-book, I think the best thing to do is to contact that author and/or author's agent.

There are so many different formats out there. What formats is HC committed to publishing and is there any movement toward a unified format and a unified DRM?

We're committed to all formats. I don't see a movement toward a unified format or DRM right now.

What is the main driving force behind DRM? Piracy or something else?

I think it is piracy.

What sales trends do you see in ebooks, ie., is one genre selling better than another?

Yes, some genres, like romance and sci-fi, sell very well in the e-book format. Our bestselling trade books do well in this format, also, so it's hard to really crown one genre over any other when it comes to sales.

Where do you see ebook sales growth in the future?

There is tons of room to grow! As the reading devices improve and word gets out that you don't always have to lug around those heavy books (with a type size that may not be convenient for you), our sales will only go up. I'll tell you a funny story: when I was growing up, my parents moved around a bit, in the US and abroad. When I was ready to leave for college my mother, who read a book a day for her entire life, gave me one piece of advice: “Don't buy hardcovers. They are too heavy to move.” Imagine if the Sony e-Reader had been available to her! She would have loved it.

Are you in the library market? Why or why not?

Yes, our e-books are available in the library market, because our readers want them to be.

I've heard that some authors are resistant to ebook release? Do you find that to be true with your authors? What is the reasoning behind that? Is it because of the lack of reporting of digital sales to the Bestseller lists? Is there anything publishers can do to change that?

More and more authors are excited and involved in their e-book publication. It's an educational process. The more authors know about the format –" that it increases overall readership, rather than “poaching” from hardcover sales, for instance, the more motivated authors are to participate.

Is the ebook market significant to you right now, or is HC trying to position itself for future success?

Yes!

What impact will multifunction devices such as smartphones have on the ebook market? I had once heard that Mobipocket was attempting to partner with a cellular company to provide the reading device as a bundled software along with a book or two. Do you think HC would be interested in that type of partnership?

Are there other eink devices or ereading devices that readers should be on the look out that will help to increase the digital market. Will these devices help increase the ebook market?

To answer your last two questions, I'm not certain what impact smart phones will have on the e-book market, mainly because the smart phone market is new and undefined. There are devices out there and in the planning stages that will certainly have a positive impact on the e-book format. In exactly what way, with exactly which device, I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. Experimentation is key. We'll learn by trying, testing, and analyzing those risks and rewards. It's a very interesting time to be publishing beyond bound books.

Thank you very much, Ms. Alessi.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

4 Comments

  1. jmc
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 17:04:29

    Bujold is an author that I buy in both formats, bound and electronic. I slightly prefer the bound version, in part because I pimp her books often and the bound copy is the hook; an e-book wouldn’t work as well, since most of my friends/family aren’t interested in e-books. Having said that, I do think it is odd that Beguilement is not available electronically. Harper/Eos did e-publish her fantasy trilogy. I wonder what changed between the last contract and the one for TSK?

    I think the rest of her backlist, heinous covers and all, is availabe at Baen even though their intial publications date as far back as 1986. Of course, it isn’t fair to compare almost any other publisher to Baen, which seems to have been far ahead of the curve in terms of e-books.

  2. LinM
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 21:23:18

    After reading this interview, I went back to the archives to read the articles from other publishers because this one sounds like PR – fluff without much substance. The Simon & Schuster interview had the wonderful comment about readers not needing a physical object on a shelf to feel ownership; the RandomHouse interview was featured during a difficult time for the ebook section of that company. I notice that 25% of that article has been deleted from the archive – if this is deliberate, it might be nice to finish this series of interviews by going back to RandomHouse.

    My questions for Ann Allessi are the following:

    1. What did happen with the Bujold “Beguilement” book? When almost every other title by this author is available in digital format, I am assuming that the decision did NOT originate with the author.

    2. I am uncomfortable with your statement about author participation in ebooks: The more authors know about the format – that it increases overall readership, rather than “poaching" from hardcover sales, for instance, the more motivated authors are to participate. What is HarperCollins doing in this area? What are author concerns? Specifically:

    a) Royalties: I pay hardcover prices for ebooks when only the hardcover is out. Does HarperCollins pay authors the same royalities for both ebooks and hardcover during this period. Harlequin got slammed for their ebook royalty policy; what policy does HarperCollins have?

    b) Rankings (eg: NYT bestseller list). Ebook sales are increasing; what are publishers doing to encourage and help the “reviewing” community to count ebook sales in the bestseller stats.

    c) Piracy. Since I can buy almost any bestseller in digital format from black-market servers, do reasonably priced ebooks increase or decrease piracy? What lessons are book publishers learning from the music industry – both what to do and what not to do.

    d) What other specific factors are discouraging author participation in ebook sales and what is HarperCollins doing to address these issues?

  3. Jane
    Jan 07, 2007 @ 23:31:07

    LinM – re: the random house interview, unfortunately, I had done the interview and had the answers and posted them on Sunday. The following day, I received an email asking for the post to be taken down and they sent me a revised version. I did take the post down because I didn’t want to get any one in trouble. The interviewee did invite me to revisit these issues with her in about six months and I will.

  4. LinM
    Jan 08, 2007 @ 12:11:50

    The interviewee (from RandomHouse) did invite me to revisit these issues with her in about six months and I will.

    Oh good, I will look forward to that. At the moment the RandomHouse interview and the HarperCollins interview are both so non-committal that the company strategies sound the same. But your introductory comments about HarperCollins show that they have some interesting initiatives.

    I’m glad that you are doing these series of interviews. With deteriorating eyesight, I find ebooks easier to read so I am cheering for every request for more digital books.

    Thanks.

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