No one needs reminding of the seismic shift we’re seeing in how we consume our media as once-analogue technologies make way for digital platforms and the gizmos we buy to host them. Ryan Christianson certainly doesn’t, and in relation to book publishing, he can boil it all down with startling word economy.
“Music was first, then it was video, and now it’s books,” he said. “It’s probably because books are very old technology, and people love old technology.
But people also love new technology, and the dynamic between the two camps is working its way through Christianson’s own digital-only Knuckledown Press and through New Rivers Press, the teaching press operated out of Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he acts as an associate editor for its e-book series. New Rivers released the first book in the series this past June, Peter W. Fong’s “Principles of Navigation.”
New Rivers began offering their titles as e-books about three years ago, but at a significant cost to the press. Suzzanne Kelley, the managing editor and co-director of New Rivers Press, said the benefits were hard to see compared to the costs of traditional paper printing and other external costs.
“We had authors who were very interested (in e-books), but we were going forward without much guidance. There was no clear path for us and a lot of experimentation,” Kelley said. “Publishers were able to convert our files for us and it was a simple process, as long as we had the cash.”
Enter Christianson, who was working his way through MSUM’s creative writing MFA program at the time while also taking optional courses on publishing and working locally for Microsoft. This overlap of skills spurred a revelation.
“I was learning about the print book industry and just shaking my head going ‘my goodness, there are a lot of steps in getting a book out that cost a lot of money.’ And then, I was seeing New Rivers Press and how much it had to spend to get an e-book out for their printed books. I thought there has to be a better way,” he said.
He then started Knuckledown Press, an independent press that works exactly like any other in its selection of work and interaction with authors save for one difference: all titles are released only in e-book format. After some success with Knuckledown, Christianson presented the concept to Kelley, who saw some big-time advantages to internalizing their own digital publishing.
“When he presented (sales numbers) that to my class, I let out an audible gasp,” Kelley said. “What he’s showing is that he’s meeting the numbers we’re meeting with print and showing the potential to surpass that total. “
The costs of digital publishing aren’t the only advantages. Digital publishing relieves the issue of storing paper copies of books, which adds up. Distributors, who normally eat around 30 percent of a book’s profit, are cut out. Kelley admits that she’s a fan of printed books, but because she travels a lot, she stores books on her Kindle to save space.
Christianson said the biggest drawback to digital publishing is that many readers simply prefer paper copies of a book and none is available, although he foresees a near future that allows a fan of an e-book to order a paper copy of it on demand.
“When I give talks about e-books, I like to say that someday you’ll be able to get print versions of your e-books. It turns around this notion so that the e-book is the standard format and print on demand is the optional output.”
There are other tradeoffs. Poetry, which enjoys a unique spatial relationship to the page, falls flat on electronic devices. Authors must accommodate live readings and face-to-face sales, typically a strong way to sell books that becomes complicated without a physical book to sign and sell. In fact, Kelley said, the whole infrastructure of buying and promoting books has become upended, but she said that disadvantage is blunted by democratized access to books and publishing, and the social aspect of sharing what we read could replace older models of marketing.
She also notes that, as New Rivers is a teaching press, digital publishing gives her students another arrow in their quiver which, in turn, shows the sign of the times.
“Going into the electronic end of publishing shows our students that we’re not stuck in some old fashioned thing, but that we’re investigating some new ideas. It gives a good edge to our press.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the July 29, 2013 edition of the paper.
Image: Suzzanne Kelley and Ryan Christianson in the New Rivers Press office on the campus of MSUM. Photo by the author.