Product decisions

Once you’ve made technical and rights decisions, you have to decide what to sell. Which books? And are they books at all?

Backlist conversions vs frontlist plans

You will probably have three different kinds of products to consider:

  1. Backlist titles: what do you convert to PDF or epub? You may choose to only convert a few titles manually, or to do these conversions en masse and very cheaply. It may be worth choosing which titles to spend time and money on converting yourself, developing in-house skills, and which to out-source to a conversion company. Out-sourced files are cheap to convert but hard to quality-control; and when out-sourcing you develop no in-house skills, which you need if you are going to innovate at all.

  2. Titles in progress. Some new books may be a long way down the production line, and there may be little you can do with them other than convert them to PDF or epub when they’re done. How much more you can do (e.g. adding thorough metadata, clearing third-party rights, hyperlinking text) depends on the skill of your in-house production staff.

  3. Next year’s frontlist: This is where the real decisions lie. Are you going to create premium, enhanced editions for iPhone and Android devices? Are you going to embed videos, or experiment with bundling extra content with ebook editions? Are you going to create hardback and ebook bundles that increase perceived customer value? Or are you going to keep overheads low and simply create well-structured PDFs?

Publishing and software development

Ebooks range from simple PDF to interactive applications, but they are all, at some level, software.

Making software is quite different from making physical objects. So the decision about titles on next year’s frontlist is one that depends on your enthusiasm for software development. Can your organisation handle software development, or will it just be a distraction?

Making even a small leap into software development could, potentially, offer a cushion to declining print sales, as books compete more and more for people’s attention against video, podcasts, music, and social media. But that change comes with its risks and challenges.

To decide, try to separate your in-house expertise in paper-based products from your in-house expertise in the curation of content. Till recently, curating content and making a good-looking book have been so intertwined that they are almost indistinguishable. But they are different skills.

Are you a company that makes beautiful, crafted physical objects? Perhaps stick with paper books: if you’re making them well, they will sell. Perhaps even more so as the rise of ebooks makes gorgeous physical ones all the more special.

Are you a company that primarily finds and makes great content? That is, are you primarily a curator of great content? Then start selling that content electronically, and making it even more useful or convenient to consume. If you have tech skills in-house too, all the better. But you don’t have to be producing amazing software! A well-formed, text-only ebook is a triumph of simplicity, and lets readers focus on the magic of the words alone.