E-books Should Be Like Television (And Other Ideas from Digital Book World)

In Digital by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

old media

“E-books should be like television,” said literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, founder of LJK Literary Management, at the first annual Digital Book World conference held in New York this past Tuesday and Wednesday. The former publisher-turned-agent offered a vision of e-books that resembles the way a television works, where you can turn on a Nokia device in Finland, an iTouch (or iPad, if you will) in America, and a not-yet-imagined i-book in China and the “books will look all the same.”

Kirschbaum believes that e-books ultimately offer a huge opportunity for American publishers in the global marketplace: “The big kahuna here, the real opportunity for US publishers, is to work to find a way to distribute e-books globally,” adding, “particularly when one considers the demand for English language titles, particularly in places like India, China and all over the rest of Asia.”  Of course, this will only work if the issue of how this can be done in the face of territorial copyright can be addressed first.


If Digital Book World proved anything, it’s that the industry still has far more questions than answers. The event, living up to its name, drew participants from as far away as Brazil, Germany and Japan, underscoring the challenge digitization continues to pose for the global book business. International participants on panels came from near and far — from Canada’s Kobo and Harlequin, which once again demonstrated that it is perhaps the most successful of the large legacy publishers in the digital world.  And some came from further away, such as Dublin-based Green Lamp Media, a digital-first start-up recently launched by entrepreneur Eoin Purcell and focused on niche markets of Irish history, food and drink.

Kirshbaum, who discussed his position at a session titled “The E-book Tipping Point” on Wednesday, suggested that publishers resolve any questions about territorial copyright by treating world English-language rights as a single market and translation rights on an individual basis (a position that surely likely rankled many of his fellow agents in the room). Technology, he argued, should make it easier for publishers, distributors and retailers to police the Web to make certain books are not sold in territories where the rights are held. “It is much easier to lock down domain addresses now,” he pointed out.

Michael Cader, founder of the publishing news service Publishers Marketplace, pointed out that Kirshbaum’s proposal to view the world as one large market for English language was unusual for an agent — even anathema to their role — but quite favorable when it came to the publisher’s role.

Cader believes the issue of an “open market” for English language e-books remains “very messy” and is likely to be first big cross-border publishing battle in the era of the digital books —and it’s one the Americans are likely to win. “It’s now 2K — two years since Kindle — so it’s safe to say that the UK is some years behind the US in e-book adoption. The US-originated e-books will be offered to UK customers faster than comparable UK editions. These US originated e-books are going to be attractive on the open market, particularly with the weak dollar against the pound, and this might spark a price war.”

The open market question for e-books also needs to be raised with regard to both the Spanish and French e-book markets, though it is less of an issue, considering the tendency of the large Spanish and French publishers to purchase world rights.

Another issue raised throughout DBW was a consistent emphasis on the need to hasten speed-to-market all throughout the publishing chain, from logistics — SBS Worldwide, a global shipping company, touted their streamlined distribution system — to actual book production. Angela James, executive editor of Harlequin’s new digital first publishing arm, Carina Press, whose first books are not due till June, noted that their production cycle is significantly faster than for traditional books, which has attracted a number of authors to the new endeavor.


“From delivery of finished manuscript to publication, we’re talking six months or less,” she told Publishing Perspectives. “This is good news for the author, because they get paid faster, but also for the author’s fans, because they will get their books quicker.”

Margot Baldwin, publisher of Chelsea Green Press, a boutique progressive publisher from Vermont, echoed James, when she said: “I can get a book into print in six weeks if I have to.” As examples, Baldwin cited works she produced last year timed to coincide with the political cycle and intended to provoke direct political action. “If publishing wants to compete with the rest of the digital world, it’s just going to have to speed up,” she said.

VISIT: The Web site for LJK Literary Management

READ: More updates from DBW on their Web site.

DISCUSS: Is territorial copyright defensible in the age of the e-book?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.