An E-Publishing Roundtable with Stephen Roxburgh and Rubin Pfeffer

Ever the innovator, The Whole Megillah paired up e-publishing pundits Stephen Roxburgh, publisher and president of namelos, and Rubin Pfeffer, partner agent at East/West Literary Agency, to talk about e-publishing.

The Whole Megillah (TWM):  Stephen, you’ve written that the growth of ebooks is fueled not by publishers but by the availability of hardware. And Rubin, you’ve said it’s the desire of consumers to read books. Please expand on your statements. Please also comment on the statement that wasn’t yours.

Stephen Roxburgh (SR): Unlike a print book, you can’t read an ebook without a machine and publishers are not manufacturing machines, yet. Booksellers are, e.g., Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and consumer electronics companies are, e.g., Apple, Sony, and many others. As more and more of these machines reach the marketplace, the prices will drop significantly and more consumers will purchase them. Consumers will read more because of the convenience of carrying a virtual library in a small mobile device. The marketing catchphrase, “Don’t leave home without it” applies to credit cards, cell phones, and, one day perhaps, a pocket library.

Rubin Pfeffer (RP): Both comments are correct. Not only is it the proliferation of electronic readers (and the delightful user experience associated with the hardware), but it is an inherent desire and interest on the part of readers to keep reading. The devices are aplenty, and with every device is the the opportunity for impulse buying. The reader can instantly acquire additional content by the writer, or extend the experience in the genre, or go further into any non-fiction topic which may have been engaged by the original reading. There is no schlepping to a store, no waiting for a delivery — instant access to content.

TWM: Also for Stephen, you’ve mentioned the lunatic fringe. Should we be scared or thrilled (in a good way)?

RP: I’ll stay away from this one and leave the coast clear for Stephen to expound.  Whew!

SR: Thrilled in a very good way. The lunatic fringe is on the other side of the comfort zone, where innovation takes place. It’s risky and very exciting.

TWM:  Should we be thinking differently about our manuscripts? Should we be writing, plotting, etc. with digital publishing in mind?

SR: I don’t think so. Technology is revolutionizing publishing, not storytelling. Some people will write stories and create art for digital applications because whenever there is a new medium, people adapt to it and try to exploit it. However, most writers and artists will continue to do what they have always done. A bunch of hybrid forms will emerge, combination of print, animation, interactivity, and music, and those projects will be the result of teams of creators exercising their individual talents. So, practice your craft and be open to new embodiments of your work.

RP: My answer is to think the same way as it pertains to great storytelling and quality writing.  Nothing changes about those basic requirements. But, the content can be presented differently and here are a few of the many ways: It can be published in installments, length is not an issue — the content of a book does not have to fit signatures (particularly a factor in illustrated children’s books), the writer can invite participation and interaction from readers, production costs are lower and some publishers may invite more exploratory or new voices to their digital programs.

TWM:  Will digital publishing affect all genres equally or some more than others?

RP: Yes, but initially it will be straight text content that surely will be published in print and digital. Illustrated material is following and I’d say all content that is deemed worthy of publication will be available in print and digital. No doubt about it. And sooner rather than later.

SR: I don’t think it will affect text-based genres as much as it will affect image-based genres. The former are immersive, linear, and not constrained by format, except artificial lengths imposed by economic concerns, e.g., page count. The latter, are often hybrid — involving text as well — and consequently discontinuous and selective: the mind accesses text differently from the way it interprets images. Digital publishing can significantly enhance the latter, but not so much the former and although there are, for example, enhanced ebooks being published, I suspect the real impact will be in the apps (applications) that are beginning to generate so much energy and attention.

TWM:  What opportunities will digital publishing present for writers? For illustrators?

SR: The primary opportunity is the ability to reach a public has expanded. Publishers used to have the resources, control the media, and the distribution channels. Not so much anymore. Writers and illustrators now have more options for getting their work in front of readers than ever before, and more are opening up every day.

RP: The cost of digital publishing from a production point of view is much more favorable than paper printing (and all the associated costs of the print model — printing, binding, inventory, shipping) so new formats (illustrated fiction and non-fiction, additional related information included such as non-fiction data to extend a non-fiction story or to enhance and further inform a historical fiction work) and new voices can be brought forward.

TWM:  Will digital publishing have any impact on foreign rights sales?

SR: The geo-political map that defined “foreign” is being redrawn and the barriers to publishing on the other side of the border or world are coming down. I believe that language rights, heretofore often sub-licensed according to geographic concentrations, e.g., a Spanish-language title might well have publishers in Spain, Mexico, and the US, will be exercised (not sub-licensed) by one publisher. For example, any publisher in any English speaking community can now market and deliver content, digitally and using print-on-demand technology, to any English reader anywhere in the world. This facility will enable publishers to publish in places where they used to grant licenses.

RP: Content that is of interest across borders is easier to offer and sell in its native language as well as in its translated editions.

TWM: Rubin, you’ve said, “We should applaud publishers for their new strategies, and embrace alternate publishing options for greater opportunities and possibilities.” Should authors be modifying their expectations? If so, which and how? Stephen, feel free to comment.

RP: There is every hope that wonderful content that couldn’t fit the p&l requirements for reprinting and became extinct before its time (otherwise known as OP — Out of Print) can be republished digitally and readily available. Great quality content went OP and deserves to be available.

When I used the phrase “Alternate Publishing Options” about seven or eight months ago, it was before a number of emerging businesses emerged. In a short period of time we have digital publishers on the scene. So digital publishing is happening from the traditional publishers as well as new players who digitally publish. This increases the number of publishers and publishing opportunities, publishing tastes, marketing skills, and is a boon, an opportunity for new writers to find their audience. The hitch is quality. All the players — old and new — must publish quality content that resonates with the marketplace — how they want it, when, and at what price.

SR: I agree completely. These are challenging times for publishers, but publishers are smart people and will figure out how to meet the challenges. Meanwhile, these are the best of times for authors because of the proliferation of non-traditional publishing models. There are now virtually no barriers to publication. That makes it sound easy and it isn’t, but it can be done. Authors and artists can expect that the distribution of labor will change, as will the distribution of risk and reward, and they will need to learn what the various business models mean to them. But, it’s all good.

TWM:  So, should The Whole Megillah become an e-publisher, specializing in Jewish-themed children’s books?

SR: I cannot recommend strongly enough that anyone considering becoming a publisher should seek professional help, and I don’t mean just legal and financial counseling. Having said that, of course you should. You’ve got the expertise, the platform, the energy, and the passion. Welcome to the lunatic fringe!

RP: I say yes, gezunta heit! And I’ll help you.

About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
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6 Responses to An E-Publishing Roundtable with Stephen Roxburgh and Rubin Pfeffer

  1. Great interview on a timely subject! Thanks for the valuable information.

  2. Katie Hines says:

    I was at Chautauqua a couple of summers ago and was sitting at the breakfast table of Stephen Roxburgh. I was asking about ereaders and he pulled his out of his book bag. It was the first time I’d seen one, and when he said it was the future of publishing, I was skeptical. But now I have my own, and love it!

  3. Great interview! I have a workshop coming up with Steven Roxburgh and an SCBWI conference where Rubin Pfeffer will be speaking. I’m a lucky girl indeed!

  4. Pingback: An E-Publishing Roundtable at The Whole Megillah | Jewish Book Council Blog

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