Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Content Officer, Library Pass

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com)

What could be more relevant to today’s challenges and opportunities than digital content? Guy Gonzalez joined the Pandemic Roundtable—Joe Berger, Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me—to talk about it.

Guy is Chief Content Officer for LibraryPass, a new company, started only last year, which curates digital content for libraries and schools. Its main product, Comics Plus, offers unlimited, simultaneous access to digital comic books, graphic novels and manga through libraries and schools. Though LibraryPass is new, Comics Plus has been around for a decade, originally as a consumer and library product, but is now only available to libraries and schools. The other major company in the space, Comixology, is the current market leader; owned by Amazon, Comixology is exclusively commercial, with no library presence.

That’s where LibraryPass comes in.

Guy: One of the biggest challenges libraries face today has to do with the cost of providing access to digital content for patrons. When the pandemic hit, everything turned around. Bookstores and libraries were closed and print sales were mostly put on hold; people were turning to digital for purchasing and borrowing. This went on so long it now looks like it might be a permanent change in behavior; a lot of people have grown accustomed to digital reading and are likely to stick with it for at least some of their reading. But it’s more expensive for libraries to offer digital content than you’d think. For starters, libraries are going into this budget year with less money to spend overall. Ebook collections are mainly driven by patron demand, so bestsellers eat up the bulk of a content budget. As a result, you see less active curation. Digital licenses from the major publishers expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain period of time, typically 52 checkouts or two years. With major bestsellers, some libraries are finding that the cost of keeping a single copy of a single ebook in circulation could be as much $500 per year. 

LibraryPass’ model is based on unlimited, simultaneous access which enables libraries meet demand without worrying about wait lists or expensive single-user licenses. They can host community reads without special terms as multiple copies can be checked out at once. It’s a risk for us, of course, as publishers get paid by usage rather than units, but offering a deeper backlist means that usage is spread wider than in the traditional model. You might remember that a number of years ago, Scribd had to cut back on its romance titles for their unlimited access subscriptions because romance readers are voracious, and Scribd was paying out more for royalties than it was making in subscriptions. Getting the subscription model right is a tricky balance to ensure fair pricing for libraries without us going out of business!

Joe: Tell us about the value of comics for libraries and schools.

Guy: Unlike Comixology and some publishers’ dedicated offerings that are primarily consumer-focused, Comics Plus doesn’t have a consumer angle. We serve readers only through libraries and schools. Comics are immersive, engaging; readers of all ages enjoy them, and many can be used in educational settings and aligned with curricula. Our most widely circulating series right now is Avatar: The Last Airbender thanks to the cartoon debuting on Netflix last year. It introduced a brand-new audience of kids to the series and they’re devouring the comics. 

Bo: How do you market the comics?

#ReadAllTheComics

Guy:  Comics are the most word-of-mouth driven media there is. Kids discover comics amongst themselves. Adult fans have lifelong favorites they still read and love.

Joe: And how do you hear back from the kids, what they’ve discovered, what’s hot?

Guy: Unlike traditional book publishing, the comic segment is relatively transparent with its sales data. The numbers can be huge, but even a “bad” comic can sell more copies than the average book.

Joe: Tell us about the evolution of the digital format in comics and graphic novels.

Guy: With variations on a “guided view” for mobile devices, the experience is more tactile than reading a regular ebook. Digital comics are good to read on iPads, better than magazines, but the main usage is, increasingly, on phones. Webtoons are digital comics specifically created for mobile and is the fastest-growing segment of the market worldwide.

Bo: What age group predominates?

For the record, I’ve always found that graphic novels are, in fact, novels. And very worthy of being read.

Guy: Broadly speaking, kids’ comics are the fastest growing and best-selling. Manga remains hugely popular, too, and is a massive force worldwide. Netflix has done a good job of bringing anime to mainstream attention, too, which is driving some manga sales. Superheroes are declining, and the market tends to be an older audience, and one that is increasingly niche. Webtoons skew younger and arguably much more diverse with a huge international audience. 

Joe: Tell about Webtoons.

Guy: WEBTOON is a literal platform, and also the Kleenex of digital comics brands as people use “webtoons” to refer to any comics created first for digital reading. Some are effectively throwbacks to old comic strips; some are single panels; some are full-fledged stories. Most scroll left to right, same as we do in the US and as they do in Korea, which has a huge audience.

The accessibility of digital platforms has changed the way people publish comics, and the way people read them. Technology often changes behavior; sometimes it’s slow and subtle, and sometimes it’s immediate. WordPress, for example, did more to change publishing than the Kindle did, in my opinion, building on the success of blogging platforms that came before it. Today, Substack is WordPress for email; structurally the same concept but with email as their focus, which allows for better customer acquisition and monetization than blogs ever managed. Each email is just a webpage on your Substack blog. These kinds of evolutions can change who gets to be a publisher, what they publish, how they publish, and who reads them.

Bo: Which is why cross-pollination is necessary from each realm of publishing to the others.

For Your Consideration

This is offered for your considertion. I will leave out my own comments and snarkiness.

Below is a quote directly from this mornings reading of Shelf Awareness. It is a discussion of a very interesting article in The New Yorker by George Packer entitled, “Cheap Words.” You can find a link to the article here. The editors at Shelf Awareness  have this to say:

Another “former Amazon employee” who worked in the Kindle division said, Packer writes, “that few of his colleagues in Seattle had a real interest in books: ‘You never heard people say, ‘Hey, what are you reading?’ Everyone there is so engineering-oriented. They don’t know how to talk to novelists.’ ”

Packer doesn’t talk much about alternatives to Amazon, including independent booksellers, Barnes & Noble or nonbook retailers who sell books, saying that publishers’ “long-term outlook is discouraging. This is partly because Americans don’t read as many books as they used to–they are too busy doing other things with their devices–but also because of the relentless downward pressure on prices that Amazon enforces. The digital market is awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich. ‘Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value,’ [Dennis] Johnson said. ‘It’s a widget.’ ”

Packer quotes a literary agent saying that book world trends are leading to ” ‘the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer.’ A few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below, the middle hollowed out: the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”

Packer concludes: “Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

2013: The Year In Review

What happened in 2013? Surely you remember, weren’t you paying attention?.

And now it is a New Year. It’s 2014.  We all get a fresh start with new opportunities, a new beginning and new chances.

You know, turn the page.

As for the year that is past… Well, as that great philosopher Marge Simpson said, “…let us never speak of it again…”

Courtesy of Wikipedia
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Amen!

On Digital Books, Apps and eReading

I was recently gifted with an iPad mini and it was interesting to see how big an improvement it was over the somewhat sclerotic first generation iPad we own. That machine, while very cool when we first got it, quickly aged and now spends most of its time crashing the Safari app or playing solitaire.

Right out of the box, everything is smoother on this new machine. Mail, calendars photos and music synched perfectly with the cloud and I was off and running in less than an hour.

Even better, while tablets still mostly feel like entertainment devices, the mini is capable of helping with work. When I’m working off campus with my MacBook Air, the mini often serves as a second screen. It can work successfully as a stand alone and mimic almost every program I use on either of my Macs. I even came across a shell app for Tel-Net access to a legacy IBM mainframe I work with on almost a daily basis (Yes, those still exist and are useful).

So it wasn’t too long before I downloaded the iBook app and decided to give digital reading a second try.

My conclusion is this: I’m fortunate to be part of a “straddle” generation. We’re the people who adapted to personal computing, made it part of our professional and personal lives. But we remember a time when computers were large, distant, and mostly used for accounting and launching NASA rockets.

And I want to say this: I laugh at digital apologists who frequently say how much “greener” eBooks are? Seriously? How do they think those shiny slabs of metal, plastic and lord knows what else are made? What do you think powers your Wi-Fi? Have you seen pictures of the air in Beijing and Shanghai? While there may be some green washing on both sides of the “debate” let’s point out that at least paper is created out of a renewable resource that is recyclable. Moreover, in my little shallow backwater of the publishing business (Newsstand Distribution), almost every single thing that enters a wholesalers’ warehouse is recyclable.

I did try reading on the iPad 1 early on and was displeased with how awkward and heavy the tablet felt after a while. So I was expecting a better experience with the mini. Meh.  We added what was supposed to be a “lightweight” cover to the tablet but in all honesty, at some point it feels just like a large book. Granted, it’s not like a Stephen King “Under The Dome” hardback, but still.

So how was reading with it?

The screen image is nice. The mini is the right size for reading. I liked the nighttime reading feature. That is certainly an improvement over a book light. Downloading books, presuming the books were in the iBook store was very quick.

On the flip side, it was a little odd finding that I could download books that are now in the public domain for free. I suppose I should be grateful for having free access to Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, but it felt a little like stealing.

The ability to switch the screen to white on black for nighttime reading is one of the big pluses for me. In either daytime or nighttime mode, the screen is easily readable and switching out of iBook into other apps is, of course, easy. I didn’t find the iBook store any harder to navigate than I find almost any other digital store. Which is to say that I’m not that easily impressed.

In other words, I’m impressed with the technology. But still not the layout or ease of use. It’s not that any of this is difficult to use. I’m far from a technophobe. I just don’t like having to think about what I’m doing when I am reading.

The first book I downloaded and read through was “Discordia” by British journalist Laurie Penny and American artist Molly Crabapple. The short book is not available in print and was intentionally designed as an e-book. In its digital form, it was remarkably cheap. I’m a fan of Molly Crabapple’s art work. It’s sort of cross between neo-Victorian and Steampunk. The book is a journal/artistic rendering of the time Crabapple and Penny spent in Greece during the financial and social meltdown in the summer of 2012. Laurie Penny’s prose is a modern take on Hunter S. Thompson and gives a lot of weight and empathy to the plight of the upcoming generation of the underclass. Her writing is direct, forceful and thought-provoking.

Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny
Discordia, By Molly Crabapple and Laurie Penny

In my first read through the book, I was stuck by how either I couldn’t, or couldn’t figure out how to zoom in on the images. I Googled my problem and found many unhelpful suggestions. Once again, tech was in the way of reading. The latest version of iOS seems to have resolved this. Or I may have stumbled across the solution without realizing it.

Another issue I ran into was one of bookmarks and controls. I found getting the controls for bookmarks and scrolling touchy at times. If I tap the screen accidentally, the page will turn on me. Are there comparable issues with an old-fashioned print book? Yes, but whether reading for pleasure, learning or business, I don’t want to be thinking about technology.

And then there’s the public library. If I want a book at the library, I go there and get it. If I’m lazy, I sign in remotely, reserve the book, then go get it when it gets placed on the shelf for me to pick up.

If I want a digital book from the library, well that’s an entirely different story. Opponents of the ACA (aka Obamacare) have been having fun laughing at the web site. If they want to see a real horror, check out digital public libraries. Go see for yourself.

I did download a more contemporary novel and found layout and ease of navigation pretty fair. In other words, there’s not a lot to complain about and anything I did complain about would sound like so much nitpicking.

But I also downloaded what you could call a “legacy” book. Something that had been in print for some time: American author Tad William’s “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series. This is a set of fantasy novels and if you’re a fan of the genre, you know that this means maps, glossaries and lots of turning back and forth to pick up complex and convoluted threads.

What was interesting here was that the final book in the series had originally been published in two volumes. At the time, the publisher explained that they split the book in two because of the size (It’s very long) and they did not want to sacrifice publishing quality. In the digital world, that’s not an issue. So why are they sold as two books digitally? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.

To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan
To Green Angel Tower Part 1 & 2 By Tad Williams, Published by Daw Books. Cover art by Michael Whelan

Perhaps negotiating tablets and digital reading will become as second nature to younger generations as flipping a page and scanning an index is to our “straddle” generation. But given the tendency of hardware and software developers to fiddle with their designs, I wonder. What do I mean? Well, which version of Office is in your office? What do you think of the latest one you have? How long did it take for you  to get “used” to it? Why do you have to get used to it?

If I was filling out one of the endless customer surveys that are pushed at me after my latest web or bricks and mortar purchase, I would click on the number five: I neither “Like nor dislike” the experience. It’s OK. It’s nothing great. At times it is pleasant. At other times, I’m frustrated and wondering why I’m spending time with this.

When reading becomes all about the tech and not the word, you’ve lost me. When the tech fails to enhance the word or image you’ve missed a wonderful opportunity. A contemporary novel, or even a “legacy” one is fine digitally. I would have loved to spent hours looking “Discordia” in print.

My conclusion is this: The recently reported plateauing of digital book and magazine sales is might be the pause we see while the early adopters wait for the rest of the populace to catch up. We will see usage grow and new technologies change and adapt what we’re doing.

None of this is going away paper lovers.  But I hope (hope being the key word), that the tech will not overwhelm the importance and pleasure of the written word.