Italy’s 40K Books: No Paper, No Attention Span, No Problem

In Europe, Frankfurt 2011 by Rachel Aydt

Milan-based 40K Books is convinced that less is more, and offers e-books that can be read in 60 minutes or less.

Interview by Rachel Aydt

MILAN: E-book publishing house 40K Books (the “K” stands for Key, not the abbreviation for thousand) is a company based in Milan that has planted itself firmly into the global digital marketplace. They’ve shaped their business around two constants: no paper, and no attention span. Clock it: their typical reader has roughly one  hour to spare, and 40K’s going to scoop it however they can. 40K is a sister company to Italian e-bookseller BookRepublic and offers titles in a variety of language, including English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Publishing Perspectives spoke to 40K’s Editorial Director Giuseppe Granieri about their strident business practices and the challenges of leaving traditional long-format models in the dust.

See 40K Books at Publishers Launch (October 10 at 9:15) and Tools of Change Frankfurt Conference (11 October) during the Frankfurt Book Fair this year.

PP: Can you sketch out a brief overview of your company– the inspiration for its creation, and a bit about your founders?

Giuseppe Granieri of 40K Books

Giuseppe Granieri: 40K is a digitally native imprint. Our emancipation from paper allows us to publish and distribute books in different languages at their natural length. So we can publish novelettes, novellas and highly focused essays that deliver our readers knowledge in less than an hour of investment in terms of reading time. We started doing it some months before Kindle Singles were announced.

Our CEO, Marco Ferrario, and our CTO, Marco Ghezzi, come from years of experience in traditional publishing at the higher levels. So we believe we can maintain the best part of the traditional publishing process, but we can think digital.

Do you solicit mainly original work, or do you acquire work that has been previously published in order to translate it?

It depends. Our essays are, by definition, original works, because we ask our authors for hot, entertaining storytelling with a strong focus. Novelettes and novellas sometimes are previously published in print, mostly in magazines. For example, in our catalog we have some of Bruce Sterling’s stories: the first one, “Black Swan”, was previously published, while the second one, “The Pathenopean Scalpel,” is totally original.

Do you ever see breaking from your short-format formula to publish longer form works?

I think not. The interstitial reading, the success of short forms simply is a new opportunity for readers, a choice you can add to your traditional one. In the essay market, anyway, that will be more critical. Now you don’t need to repeat over and over again the same idea just because you need to fill 130 or more pages. You can express your thought and then stop when you said it all. Your readers will appreciate this, I’m sure.

How have you managed to anchor your business into the global publishing community? Do you use outside consulting firms or PR agencies, or are you mainly word of mouth?

Mainly word of mouth, of course. We build our reputation day by day — as it is common in the digital era — by doing things like maintaining a presence in digital fields like Twitter. Our main Twitter channel @40Kbooks is known as a great source for trends in publishing and writing. But working in different markets always requires different approaches. So, every language is a different story.

What sets your e-book business apart from others?

Well, we live in accelerated times. If you have a great idea and that idea works well, a few weeks are enough time to see everyone doing it, or simply to discover that your niche is filled. That’s why you must build the brand awareness with your individual style, with your approach, with your never-ending stream of ideas. What sets us apart is that we also realize that our readers are the partners — not the customers — of digital publishers. We listen very carefully to our readers and take seriously our commitment to them. But, I must admit, we also have fun and love to communicate with them on social networks. Publishing doesn’t need to be boring. Technology has allowed us to rethink our relationships with them.

What has been your best selling project so far, and how did you market it?

When you start with an imprint, people say it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need years to build brand awareness, so it makes sense that at the beginning your bestselling things are linked to your mostly known author’s brand. We have in backlist many award-winning authors, but if I have to mention a success case, I’ll say Livia Blackburne. She’s a young neuroscientist who wrote an essay titled “From Words To Brain.” It was her first book and we are proud to be the publisher.

We market everything with a digital point of view, which is basically a community point of view. Our new releases start with a $0.99 price tag for the first week. Then the price normalizes.

As a general practice, what involvement do you expect your authors to play in publicizing their own work. Do you ask them to involve their own social media platforms?

Authors are a great hub, the best way to connect books and readers. This works in many ways: large, traditional, fan bases are solid, but slow to activate. Online platforms are faster and easier to activate, but that means a lot of daily work. The ideal author is the one that has a fan base and has the skills to work with a platform online. If an author knows the way, you’ll have an author with a platform. The platform-building requires a lot of skills, a lot of talent and much work. You cannot ask an author to do it, but you can value it when they do.

Where do you see the future of publishing heading?

I can see the actual trends, not the destination. We may like it or not, but in the future we’ll have less printed books, less bookstores, less space on the shelves. However, we’ll have more and more books, more and more self-published authors (mostly the famous ones). We’ll see a growing up role of the digital grammar for everything that is related with findability of books. The challenge will be the matchmaking, the community management, the new solutions to the ancient problems. When all the books of the world are at a click ahead, you’ll win with the ability to give a book to the reader, who will love that.

Are there any downsides you can see to everything moving digitally?

Every new solution implies new problems. With the digital era, our culture can make useful a lot of new opportunities. But we have some deep issues to face, too. With time, prices will go down, the market will be over-competitive, and with one step at a time all of the 20th century’s industry point of views will be redesigned. The digital world is a great challenge for the cultural industry. But you can win only if you accept that rules are changing. You have to play the game.

Marco Ferrario, CEO of 40K and sister e-bookseller BookRepublic, will be speaking at the Publishers Launch Frankfurt conference on October 10 at 9:15, on the panel A Global Situational Review: Devices, ebook and app sales around the world. Marco Ghezzi, CTO of 40K, will speak at TOC Frankfurt, about metadata and opportunities in digital publishing.

DISCUSS: Do You Equate Value and Price When it Comes to E-books?

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.