“If we don’t make e-books ourselves there is a danger that agents and authors will look to license direct to Amazon or other e-book retailers, which would be very damaging for physical publishing, which in turn is damaging to the interests of readers, writers and publishers,” he says.
“Then there’s piracy – the eight-hour publishing model.”
Like fellow British publishing executive Richard Charkin, of Bloomsbury, Page blogs, though The Thought Fox is an outlet for all Faber staff, rather than just the boss. In a recent post Page rallies his colleagues and competitors, “We should really all concentrate on creating a thriving market for e-books alongside physical books, expanding the total market, and ensuring that physical and digital thinking is joined up.”
When asked where book publishing was headed, he explained that Faber was gearing up to face whatever challenges lay ahead.
“If I knew that in ten years time my business would be solely digital, it wouldn’t change any of the decisions we’re making now,” he says, adding later that e-books are about “substitution, not cannibalisation”.
Page sees digital publishing as much more than just e-books, explaining that Faber’s substantial poetry backlist forms a bank of content which could be published in many different ways. Readers could access fragments from the collection (a single poem, or six works, say), they could “rummage in our bag of poems” to create a personalised anthology, or subscribe to receive a feed of poetry via Facebook, say.
All of which would be designed to encourage reader interest in particular poets, and drive sales of larger works.
The digitally savvy Page says Faber uses Facebook and Twitter, “not because we think we’re cool or want to get down with the kids, but so we can get out and listen to who is talking about our books, and who is linking to us.”
In an early e-book experiment, Faber released Ben Wilson’s What Price Liberty as pay-what-you-want e-book download. Page says they were inspired by Radiohead’s release of its 2007 album In Rainbows under the same model. It reportedly sold more than three million copies worldwide in both digital and physical formats within a year. There was a precedent for that earlier in 2007 – Prince gave away his album Planet Earth for free in Britain with Mail on Sunday newspaper, and subsequently sold out 21 consecutive London shows.
Several thousand readers downloaded Wilson’s book, and a third of them paid about 5 pounds for it. Page says they should’ve published the print edition at the end of that first week, at the height of the buzz. Three months down the track, the early adopters had moved on. “I feel we could have sold more if we’d published immediately,” he says.
Faber partnered with British retailer Waterstone’s when the Sony eReader device arrived on the market, “then we learnt how hard it was”.
They published 23 e-books for Sony. PD James and the Book of General Ignorance were bestsellers.
“We found there was no distinction between print and e-book buyers. There was no “weird audience”, they weren’t executives or dweebs, it’s just a normal book market, you just publish straight to it.”
Today Faber is at work digitising 1100 titles by June. “Now that the Kindle is here we cannot afford to wait,” he says. “Now is the moment.”
They’ll publish around 140 new e-books a year – the remainder of the 1100 are backlist titles.
They’re ironing out issues such as who to partner with to create and manage digital files and digital rights management, what sort of royalties to pay their authors (they’ve settled on 20-25 per cent in Britain, but all their contracts are open for review if that figure is later deemed inappropriate), pricing and retail partnerships (they currently sell e-books through nine companies, including Kobo, Amazon and Waterstone’s).
Meanwhile, Page is keeping an eye on other developments, like iPhone apps. “Faber has yet to create an iPhone app, but the iPad might change this,” he said.