By Amanda DeMarco
“It’s sad, but sometimes I really long for Amazon,” muses Per Näsholm, CEO of Sweden’s Telegram Publishing, on the technologically sluggish Swedish book market. Today, Näsholm is a publisher, but his previous career as one of the leaders in digital advertising definitely still shines through. When he sold his portion of Farfar, the renowned advertising agency he’d co-founded in 2000, he had almost 15 years of digital agency work behind him and was looking for something different.
“I’ve always read heaps of books,” Näsholm explains. “With my digital background and that love of books, I saw an opportunity to contribute and take a position as as digital publisher.” Together with three partners, he bought out Schibsted Publishing (the book-publishing branch of the Norwegian media conglomerate of the same name), acquiring a considerable backlist. In 2009, Telegram was born.
Telegram is a mid-sized publisher with a list that ranges from genre to literature to non-fiction, particularly focused on pop culture. It is also associated with a music label, which results in a large number of books on musicians and collaborations between the two branches. Every physical book Telegram publishes is also released as an e-book, and the company is known for being technologically proactive.
Much of Telegram’s innovations come before there’s really much of a market for them, but it’s also easy to make big waves in Sweden’s small digital market, so enthusiastic campaigns get noticed. “The publicity and the space you get with e-tailers from campaigning and driving e-books gives the customers the sense that something is really happening with this book. There’s not a huge sales number, but we get a lot of attention from them.”
Playing with Format and Keepsakes for Fans
Telegram also experiments with format. Näsholm shows me a combined e-book and audiobook on his iPad: each page has a smart bookmark that marks your place in both the e-book and audio version. If you leave off reading in bed at night on page 99, when you turn on the audiobook on your commute the next morning, it will pick up where you left off.
Since many of Telegram’s projects revolve around creating e-books and apps for musicians, this gives fans something to “hold on to,” as there are fewer objects associated with bands that can be owned. This might be a deluxe image and video-filled biography for iPad that offers a very tactile book-like experience, to a “digital songbook,” which Telegram envisions as a successor to the CD booklet, giving artists “a way to tell a story around the album.” These latter could be bundled with albums for an extra euro or two per download.
If some of the digital projects sound idealistic in a market like Sweden’s, Näshom assures that Telegram’s overall program is a practical one: “We are doing a lot of things, but every book we decide to publish has something that is possible to commoditize.” E-books represent almost 20% of some Telegram books’ sales — if they benefit from price campaigns, YouTube trailers, and an e-book release prior to the physical version.
In January, Telegram Studios Ltd. was formed in the UK, uniting Telegram’s publishing and music divisions. Ultimately, the Swedish digital market proved too slow for Telegram’s plans, and digital projects naturally lend themselves to international distribution. For Näsholm, the question was “how can we combine and let [Telegram’s different branches] interact with each other — music, text, film — and reflect the publisher as a whole, not just to be a book publisher, but to be a publisher in the broad sense”
Telegram took on 40 new shareholders when it established the UK company. “We wanted 40 ambassadors, people with good networks in similar businesses, good people talking about Telegram and opening doors for us.” As Telegram builds its international network, Näsholm looks to other industries not just for contacts, but also for indications of what the future holds: “The book business will be like the music industry, consolidating into giants and small clusters of creative people who have the credibility to approach musicians and writers.”
Amanda DeMarco is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives; she also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.