By Eoin Purcell
America, the land of milk and honey…
Irish* publishers have for a long time looked upon America and its 70-million-strong horde of citizens of Irish descent as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It has been seen that way because while the US traditionally seemed to offer the prospect of huge rewards, actually getting to them has been considerably harder than you might think.
Dozens of Irish publishers — big, medium and small — have fallen on the fences of high shipping costs, poor sales and distribution, fluctuating currency patterns, and pure bad luck in their efforts to break into the US market to tap that Irish Diaspora.
Fundamentally, the struggle has been one of enormous opportunity pursued by small companies (relative to the market size) faced by capital, geographic and practical barriers.
Digital distribution is changing that, rapidly.
Now any publisher, indeed any content creator, owner or license holder, can reach the US market rapidly, cheaply and with a little bit of savvy investment and promotion start to build an audience for themselves there. What’s more, while they might well pursue that elusive diaspora-driven pot of gold, as I have chosen to, they can ignore it if they wish and try and sell their digital content to American readers of any inclination.
Why shouldn’t you, for example, pursue literary fiction readers in Santa Barbara from your home in the UNESCO City of Literature, Dublin?
Perhaps that sounds a bit too easy, a little too revolutionary, but it really isn’t. I obviously cannot guarantee success but if you follow a few basic guidelines, there’s every reason to think you will see some sales in the US. And if you build your marketing apparatus and develop a strong brand, following or fan-base who knows where that will end?
How To Do It: The Basics
The first thing I did, starting from scratch, was think about the kind of content Irish-Americans might want. Then I commissioned it and made it available as widely as my limited resources allowed. This proved to be a sensible strategy. If you have an existing list and some of it sells in the States, then pursue that rapidly. A digital sale through Amazon is probably worth more to you then a paper sale through a US distribution partner anyway — it’s a harsh reality, but a reality nonetheless.
Once you have your content in place, conversion and distribution issues come to the fore**. Strangely, the smaller you are the easier that decision becomes, because most large scale retailers and intermediaries would rather ignore you, so you have to use services like Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit to get your books on e-book retail sites.
You shouldn’t need to waste a fortune converting your back catalogue from PDFs locked on your server. Dig around your servers and discs, you might just have an InDesign file of that back-list title (hopefully one recent enough that you can convert it using Amazon’s free .mobi convert for InDesign 4 and 5) or maybe a close-to-final version of the file in MS Word, which with some editing and style tailoring will convert well. The trick is to grab the problem and learn. Try and puzzle through the issues yourself, it will pay off.
Almost any publisher, big or small could benefit from a few months experimentation with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Platform or Smashwords’ platform. Both are easy to use and learn. If you have a .mobi file you can get put Kindle edition of your book on sale in very short measure. With Smashwords, if you have a properly formatted Word file, the result are, frankly speaking, impressive and they give you the freedom to experiment with covers, prices and sales copy in ways that print publishers never could.
In terms of what helps sales, mainstream media will be hard to get, just like it is for printed Irish books in America. Intead, you can build social media buzz and tap web resources for potential customers, enticing them with free content (sensibly deployed), active discussions and anything that gets them closer to the act of purchasing.
The rewards are sales to customers you would previously have had to spend serious capital and invest in costly physical books to reach.
Isn’t that worth learning some new things?
The Flip Side
The problem is of course that if you can sell to an American reading in Boise, Idaho, they can sell an e-book to a fisherman off Kinsale, Cork. So, while the wonders of digital distribution are opening the doors to more efficient, effective sales in the US, it is also making instant competition on a global scale a reality.
The good news is that that will happen whether you react to it or not. You could chose to ignore e-books and digital distribution until the tide eventually breeches the commercial levee that seems to currently surround Ireland. But by then, you’ll be on your back foot, with no experience of e-books, no market in the US to fill the void of sales that are disappearing in your own market, and you’ll be years behind your competitors (who took my advice) and tried their hand at the game. Or, you could just give it a go: invest a tiny sum and some time and maybe just maybe, it will work out.
What’s the worst that can happen after all?
*When I say Ireland here, I really mean any small market country that has the opportunity to sell e-books to larger neighbours.
**I stress here that the case I’m discussing is really a narrative-based text. If you have an image heavy or stylistically complex book, you will need to pursue more complex conversion strategies.
Eoin Purcell is editor of IrishPublishingNews.com and publisher of TheIrishStory.com a digital publisher of short Irish history e-books. This story is excerpted from the annotated program book that will be provided to attendees at the Publishers Launch Conference: A Global Perspective on Digital Change, presented with the Publishers Association in London on June 21, and where Purcell will be moderating a panel entitled, An Emerging Opportunity: Selling into the U.S.