Tag Archives: publishing industry

CEO Weighs In: “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Platform Author Solutions”

The big shoe that I was certain would drop just did:

Three authors have filed suit against self-publishing service provider Author Solutions, and its parent company Penguin, airing a laundry list of complaints and alleging the company is not a publisher so much as a “vanity press.” — PW May 1, 2013

I have no special insight into the merits of this suit as a legal matter, but the filing of it brings to light the obvious fact that there are companies out there exploiting the hopes and dreams of neophyte authors. More from the PW article, “Authors Sue Self-Publishing Service Author Solutions”:

The suit, which seeks class action status, alleges that Author Solutions misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with “traditional publishers,” and the company offers “greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors.”

The problem here is easy to spot. No doubt in the literature that they show prospective authors, and in the agreements that they execute with them, such “publishers” are careful not to promise sudden authorial fame and fortune. But of course the prospective authors do want some degree of Book authors file class action suit against Author Solutions self publishing platformrecognition, and they would like some remuneration too.

What most people think they know about publishing comes from the utterly anomalous success stories the media finds newsworthy. It used to be “first time novelist gets million dollar advance.” Now it’s “first book by self-published author sells 500,000 copies.” Getting hit by lightning three times on a sunny afternoon is much more likely.

So, aspiring authors have some expectations. What expectations do self-publishing services such as Author Solutions have?  Read between the lines of the following “prepared statement,” quoted in the same PW article.

In a prepared statement, Author Solutions pointed to the fact that it has “successfully enabled more than 170,000 authors to self-publish more than 200,000 titles,” and noted that it has received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau.

I am not sure that the 170,000 authors of those 200,000 titles are all that thrilled by their publisher’s “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau. They might have preferred a place on the best-seller list.

Perhaps the authors who are suing were a little naive. Let’s look at two publishing scenarios. In the first, the publisher pays an advance, covers the editing, designing, and printing costs, and will suffer a big financial loss if the book does not sell. In the second scenario the “publisher” charges the author for all of the publication costs and makes a profit even if the title does not sell a single copy. Which outfit will be motivated to sell books? To understand a business deal you need to follow the money.

And now this article, in Friday’s PW. The CEO of Author Solutions has, for some reason, been replaced by a Penguin executive. Here is how they are spinning the change:

Penguin chairman John Makinson said that the appointment of [Andrew] Phillips [the new CEO] will connect Authors Solutions more closely to Penguin. “Andrew’s impressive range of talents and experience equip him perfectly to extend the international development of Author Solutions, to build on our network of publishing partnerships, and to strengthen the ties with Penguin companies around the world.” — PW May 3, 2013

This statement looks like an attempt to blur the distinction between Author Solutions and Penguin—so that the cash register will keep ringing for Author Solutions. But no amount of corporate speak about building on a “network of publishing partnerships” or strengthening “ties with Penguin companies around the world” can bridge the apparently huge gap between these two enterprises.  The big question is why Penguin, one of the greatest publishing companies on the planet, is willing to wrap its name around a dubious proposition like Author Solutions.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Information Technology That Works

I have been drawing attention in this blog to new publishing-related software that over-promises and under-delivers: authoring platforms that are not actually going to make anybody into an author; self-publishing programs that will not turn an author into a publisher overnight; social media schemes that really just amount to fraud or deception rather than legitimate publicity.

Ones and Zeros Extending into DistanceThe fact remains that there are some aspects of information technology which are revolutionizing the book business. Not the flashy, public-facing “solutions” I have been complaining about, but rather a quiet back-office capability to receive, broadcast, and interpret data—lots of data—that is making all the difference.

As recently as four or five years ago, even a quite sizable publishing company could get along just fine with a two-person IT department: one person to keep the server going and another to reboot employees’ computers when the things won’t cooperate. That was the case with IPG for many years.

Now, however, IPG employs fourteen highly trained computer specialists who can program, construct databases, write SQL queries, design websites and dashboards, mine data, generate reports, construct interfaces, and oversee highly complex management systems. Most of the time they are working so hard they have smoke coming out of their ears. Here are some of the technological capabilities, becoming ever more vital to the indie publishing community, that these people make possible:

Point-of-Sale Information. We are able to get information from the largest booksellers and wholesalers about the number of copies of each of our titles they have on hand, the number on order, the number on backorder, the number that sold through this week and last week, both by units and by the percentage of copies sold versus the quantity on hand. It used to be that publishers had little idea what was going on in the marketplace in regard to their titles at the store level. We sent them out and just hoped they would not come back. With point-of-sale data, the timing and quantity of reprints can be handled infinitely better than in the past. Access to this data revolutionizes the way publishers run their companies.

Metadata Feeds. Sophisticated publishing operations now send metadata to their major customers. (Metadata is just a term for electronic title data.) We send our data to 350 customers, formatted in ONIX as well as proprietary formats, once a week. Why is this important? We now have about 85,000 available products on our list. We make hundreds of revisions to our title database every week because of price changes, new editions, new forewords, new reviews, and changed statuses which must all be communicated to our customers. Metadata feeds enable the seamless, automated transmission of these changes to our customers’ servers and databases or else we would all go crazy trying to keep the data straight. At this point in the book business, any friction in the system costs everyone dearly.

Data Mining. IPG has a “data warehouse” that has recorded every sale of every title to every customer for many years. This data can be sliced and diced by any combination of hundreds of parameters. A few simple examples: BISAC subject codes, customer type or location or size, book format, and of course quantities sold over any date range. To this information we can add sales histories of comparable titles from other publishers. The big-box retailers—Wal-Mart, Costco, Kmart, and so on—require that we “model” the titles we present to their buyers. That is, we must demonstrate with data that the title we are pitching to them has the right attributes to perform well in their stores for their customers. No data, no sale.

Ebook Conversion and Distribution. IPG now produces hundreds of ebook editions a week. This would not be possible without automated procedures and work flows. Most weeks we send about 200 new files to our thirty-five ebook retailers, which adds up to about 7,000 ebook files with their related metadata. This would be unthinkable without an automated batch-mode delivery system, another information technology innovation.

Years ago, when my wife and I ran a small bookstore next to the Drake Hotel in Chicago, we used to keep track of the inventory on 3” by 5” cards stored in a little metal box. It is hard not to be nostalgic about those simpler times, and perhaps that nostalgia can help us to keep clear in our minds the truth that book publishing is really about intellectual content rather than the latest whiz-bang technology. Books were books back in those days too. Still, the right sort of IT is now indispensable: it enables publishers to reach an ever broadening audience at an ever diminishing cost.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Writing On The Wall: What Publishers Can Learn From The State Of The Music Industry

music industry can show the potential future of the book industry img source http://www.oneworld-publications.com/blog/music-to-publish-books-by

Book publishing professionals have been interested, to say the least, in the evolution of the music business over the last decade or so: its sudden conversion to a digital delivery system, the easy availability of music over the web, the free downloads that crushed traditional sales, the small labels put out of business and the big ones merging and contracting. The final result is a burnt-out industry, now only a shadow of its former power and prestige. Too much of this story seems to presage current trends in the book business.

Now there is another ominous chapter in their distressing story. In the January 28 edition of The New York Times, there is an article by Ben Sisario entitled “As Music Streaming Grows, Royalties Slow to a Trickle.” The article describes how the new methods that are used to distribute music by companies such as SpotifyPandora, and YouTube are a lousy deal for musicians. Even iTunes is being left behind by these new services, and musicians can now expect nickels when their recorded songs are bought instead of the dollars they used to earn.

Here is the story of one such musician, a Ms. Zoe Keating, as reported by the Times: “After her songs had been played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, she earned $1,652.74. On Spotify, 131,000 plays last year netted just $547.71, or an average of 0.42 cents a play.” By now the sale of recordings to consumers, aside from the work of the superstars, only has meaning as PR to promote live concerts.

Is there a strong parallel between the plight of the musician and the likely fate of the book author?  I surely hope not, because it is hard to imagine author readings going very far to make up for negligible book sales. But the siren song that has so badly damaged the financial prospects of record labels and musicians might soon be sung to publishers and authors. It could go something like this: forget about selling books for $14.95 each to readers; instead put your books into a big pot to which subscribers, paying a low fixed fee every month, can have access. It is true that you will be paid nickels rather than dollars, but there will be so many nickels!

If the book industry, like the music business, adopts this subscription model, there may be—for a little while—a lot of nickels. But the demand for books is limited—or “inelastic” as economists put it. So many books, so little time!  Over time, more and more titles will have to compete for the fixed amount of money collected by the subscription services. And authors really will need to polish up their dramatic reading skills.

And now this just in from Publishers Weekly:  Amazon intends to create a market for used eBooks. A print book can be sold by its buyers to someone else with no royalty going to the author. But one copy of an eBook could potentially be resold any number of times. Thousands of times.  What would the author receive each time his/her work was resold? Zip.

What can be done? If this worst case scenario happens, publishers may have to consider delaying the release of eBook editions until the print editions have had a chance to earn the publisher and the author a reasonable return, similar to how the film industry times the release of movies to theaters, then DVD, and then later, streaming subscription services. This is a version of the old rule of thumb that suggests delaying the release of the trade paperback edition until the cloth edition has sold through. In any event, publishers must not let any seller of their titles use its market power to drive prices down to the point where authors and publishers cannot do their jobs. And it is always important to remember that when the subject is books, it is not just money we are talking about. We are also talking about sustaining the vitality of our culture.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Making Indie Publishing & Social Media Work Together: Part II

“Social media has one foot in the highly commercial world of advertising and the other foot in the realm of human communication—hopefully sincere human communication. This combination might not always be a comfortable one; but it is now possible to glimpse some social media strategies that may be especially well-suited to the needs of indie publishers.”

Making Indie Publishing and Social Media Work Together Part IIEffective social media marketing has to at least appear to have a higher purpose than just selling a product. It needs to support the idea that community-building information is being exchanged. But can you really make an effective sales pitch, somehow hidden inside friendly communication, in a tweet or a blog or a Facebook post? I think authors and independent publishers can pull it off.

How? With the exception of bestsellers, marketing books has always been a question of bringing the right title to the attention of a buyer already interested in the book’s subject. It has always been a question of matching rather than convincing, a soft sell rather than a hard one. And traditional book marketing has long had a crucial social aspect: word of mouth—information passed among members of a community—is really what drives book sales. Since authors and indie publishers have all along aimed to create some degree of community rather than just driving sales, social networks present a new opportunity to further this goal.

I believe that social media marketing can be particularly effective at the author level. Authors can get away with a little obvious self-promotion. Writing a book is very hard work, often for little pay (again excepting the bestsellers), and most importantly requires a level of self-exposure and risk of failure that most of us simply shy away from. There is a heroic aspect to authorship that serious readers appreciate and admire.

This special connection allows authors to promote their own books, as well as those of their compatriots, without violating social media etiquette. They can inspire readers to buy books through tweets, blogs, and other forms of social media and can use those social outlets to steer customers to their publishers’ websites. After all, to the extent that their publisher is working a niche, that website will in itself amount to a sort of community where publishers, authors, and readers can connect over a shared interest. Over time, it is possible to build a bridge that leads from the author’s social media efforts to the publisher’s website.

What can a distributor do to turn the social media efforts of authors and publishers into sales? IPG has constructed sophisticated shopping carts, at no charge, for some of our client publishers’ websites. These shopping carts are customized to match the look of each website or meet the design preferences of the participating publisher, and they offer eBooks, print books, and streaming audio and video directly to consumers. IPG takes care of all of the back end processing and fulfillment services, as well as automating product and stock information and providing options for promotions. IPG is also developing a “buy button” which can easily be attached to author and publisher social communications, taking readers directly to the relevant book page on a publisher’s new shopping cart. These initiatives are still in beta, but they look very promising and will offer authors and publishers a chance to capitalize on the online communities they’ve cultivated through their social media efforts.

At a macroscopic level, every participant in the publishing industry can be a participant in the larger social conversation revolving around books and the people who love them. By engaging in these conversations, indie publishers (and distributors) can join vibrant communities of authors and readers, leading these groups to their websites, and thus, their books.

**Check out some of IPG’s new shopping carts here: Urban Land Institute Bookstore, American Cancer Society Bookstore, and Nomad Press Bookstore

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Finding Your Publishing Niche

I defined the attributes of a good publishing niche in part one of this post. In this second part I am going to explore the idea of the “pseudo-niche,” the publishing possibility that might look like a winner for an independent publisher but will probably not support good sales because it does not offer the advantages of a true niche. I will also discuss some examples of how new niches can be discovered.

We all know that it would be suicidal for an indie press to publish another book on French Cooking; but how about a book on Northern French Cooking, or Northern French Fish Cooking? Isn’t that a “niche-y” enough subject to be unattractive to a big publisher but still wide enough to provide a viable market for a small one? Perhaps the subject is still too broad. How about Low-Fat Northern French Fish Cooking?

The trouble with this line of thought is that it conflates the complicated idea of a true niche with the way-too-simple notion of mere narrowness. A big subject sliced finer and finer might keep the big houses away, but it does not necessarily offer anything like the pre-existing, structured, and engaged niche audience needed to support a successful indie title.

That said, dividing a strong category into ever finer sub-categories is a time-honored and often effective strategy for independent publishers. Part of the trouble with the French Cooking example above is that French cooking as a category has lost most of its sizzle. There surely was a time when very fine subdivisions of French cooking made viable titles for small presses. That time is over. Here, however, is a current example of the slice-it-very-fine strategy that does work: Chicago Review Press has done well with a series of titles devoted to very specific kinds of movies. The newest one, The Slasher Movie Book, is selling even better than expected.

Another tricky strategy that sometimes works is to combine two strong but seemingly unrelated subject areas into one, thus creating a new and theoretically very powerful niche. Suppose we were to combine the ever popular subject of romance with the ubiquitous hobby of bird watching. Let’s call it Romantic Bird Watching. Could this be made to fly? Maybe not.

But how about combining the idea of doing good with the notion of taking a vacation? On the face, this is not an easy pairing. Isn’t doing good the last thing you want to have on your mind when you’re on vacation? However, Chicago Review Press’s title Volunteer Vacations is in its 11th edition and has sold over 150,000 copies. The difference between the Romantic Bird Watching concept and Volunteer Vacations is that there really are wonderful do-good vacation opportunities: building nature trails for the Sierra Club and so on. As for birder romance…

Then there is the strategy of taking an established subject area up-market. The market for children’s books is of course ferociously competitive, but it is possible to carve out niches within that market. Twenty years or so ago Chicago Review Press started a series of activity books for kids based on the idea that kids are smarter than the education establishment thinks they are. Many educators and parents think that children should never encounter an unfamiliar word or concept in a book. Our notion was that a child should always encounter unfamiliar words and concepts in the books they read.

Out of this up-market niche have come dozens of successful books for children nine years and older with titles such as Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, The Civil Rights Movement for Kids, World War II for Kids, and just out, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids. The content within these titles presents refreshing challenges to underestimated youngsters eager to understand the world at large around them and breaks from the typical mold of children’s books.

Finally, publishers may want to consider the concept of the down-market niche. The wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey may indicate that erotica is now just a down-market niche within the category of fiction. Indie publishers, however, should probably leave this new niche alone. The big houses are already all over it.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The 20 Habits of Successful Independent Publishers

Over the years my work at IPG has given me experience with more than 500 different indie publishing companies ranging in size from very small to quite large. I am also the founder of a prosperous mid-sized house, Chicago Review Press, which now publishes 60-70 new titles a year.

In this post I make some observations about the way the most successful independent publishers tend to conduct their business. My list is no doubt idiosyncratic, biased, and incomplete. The point is to stimulate some new thinking and, more importantly, to suggest that indie publishing is unique from what big publishers do, and for that matter, quite unique from how standard business is practiced.

Business Strategy

Successful indie publishers spend very little time thinking about how the industry should function or talking to people who do. Instead, they thoroughly learn how the business actually works and how to prosper within it.
They focus on a niche, but they are always looking for new, or better yet, related ones, because they know that the half-life of a particular niche may only be about 2.5 years or less.
They attempt to sell their books into many markets, be the market trade, or library, or gift, or special sales, rather than relying on only one. They create electronic editions of every title they publish. They want a lot of baskets, even if they have only a few eggs.
They develop a business plan, a set of goals, even a mission statement; but they nimbly alter any of these (perhaps not the mission statement) when circumstances change.
They keep their fixed overhead as low as they possibly can. They make use of freelancers and outside services whenever the price and quality are reasonable. They hire additional staff only as a last, desperate, measure.
They use consultants only when they need solutions to very clearly identified business problems. They know Mother is cheaper for sympathetic hand-holding.
They never tell anyone that their author will be on a big national TV show or that their book is going to be a major motion picture until the show is in the can or the filming has commenced.
They never bet the company on any one book. They understand that the first requirement for success is to be able to stay in the game, and that staying in the game brings experience, contacts, and reputation—advantages that cannot be gained in any other way. They don’t imagine they are in the bestseller business.

The Books

Successful indie publishers only publish books that are rich in content. They know that the books with strong content are the ones that can perform as backlist, and that strong backlist is the sine qua non of successful independent publishing.
They have special access to the information needed to make their books content-rich—years of personal involvement in a subject area, a close relation to a special-interest publication, a means of identifying individuals especially qualified to write books for a particular niche—some special advantage or edge.
They work with their authors to deliver manuscripts shaped for very particular audiences, and they don’t hesitate to push their authors until they get what that target audience needs. They know that for every book that fails because the audience is too narrow, hundreds fail because the audience is too broad.
They always have their book covers and interiors designed by professional book designers, even if they have a niece who went to art school.
They understand how to wisely conduct market research. Instead of wasting funds on focus groups and other auxiliary market research, they focus their efforts on their consumer audience and conducting competitive research of similar titles to gain a firm grasp of how their book is unique to the marketplace.
Their books are very cleanly designed, copy-edited, and typeset, but they never ask their customers to pay extra for a level of quality that is not wanted: for instance, 80lb paper or a sewn binding in a book that will only be read once or just a few times.
They put an enormous amount of time into imagining the ideal realization of each book so the finished product is harmonious and (this is the really hard part), somehow, exactly right for the book’s subject and intended audience. They spend a lot of time in bookstores looking over the merchandise with a skeptical eye.
They don’t think for a second that publishing a title as an eBook somehow makes strong content and excellent design irrelevant.

Ethical Considerations

Successful indie publishers treat their employees with unusual care and consideration, because they know a productive employee at an independent press could earn a higher salary working in a different industry—almost any other industry.
They remember that the publishing community is small and that their reputation will precede them. They under-promise and over-deliver.
They understand the power of the printed word and that what they do as publishers can have a cultural influence, for good or ill, completely out of proportion to the dollars generated by their books or the number of copies sold.
They are serious people, well worth knowing.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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Who Will Stand Up for Books as Books?

orig image theamazingworldofpshychiatry.wordpress.comThe word around the blogosphere assumes that publishers are angry about the state of the book marketplace because their superannuated business model is about to be blown away, and that’s a good thing because that old model makes books too expensive, excludes too many fine authors, and makes too much money for greedy owners. Most of this sounds like sour grapes, or misinformation, or as I pointed out in a previous blog, a way for dot-com start-ups to make money.

But what’s really driving publishers crazy is the fact that the big movers and shakers in the book business at the moment—Amazon, Apple, and now here comes Microsoft—are not really in the book business at all. Amazon uses books as a loss leader to sell more expensive things. Apple really cares about electronic devices. Microsoft wants to make Windows an eBook reader operating system. The publishing industry is being batted around like a shuttlecock by players who don’t much care about, or even care for, books. Who is standing up for the book itself?

While it is true that in terms of sales, each of these companies generate more than the total of all of the book publishing conducted on our planet, aren’t books important enough in their own right to be the focus of an industry? Aren’t we courting cultural disaster if books become just a means of selling something else? Is economic power the only legitimate measure of everything?

Despite all the cynical commentary on many blogs, publishing professionals are not just worried about keeping their jobs. Most of them care deeply about books and are easily talented enough to make a better living doing almost anything else. Serious publishers, distributors, editors, designers, booksellers, book reviewers, librarians, author agents: these highly trained specialists bring an enormous amount of expertise to the making and distribution of good books. People who really know and care about books should be in charge of the business of books.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content: Part II

In the previous post, it was argued that the cost of the content of eBooks cannot be reduced much because the making of it is deeply artisanal in nature. Since content is in no deep sense digital, producing it at a high level cannot be automated, which is where important cost savings could have been achieved if any were possible.

On the other hand, the distribution of eBooks, the part of the publishing process the e-retailers handle, is absolutely digital, already largely automated, and should therefore be much cheaper than it is now. An eBook customer’s order is received, handled, shipped, and the payment processed, electronically. There is very little need for human intervention or judgment in any part of this operation. How then can it be reasonable for Amazon to keep over 50% of the billing?

Amazon justifies their high distribution fee by pointing out that it allows them to drastically discount the price of eBooks, which is a fine thing for consumers. Their policy of passing through to consumers most and sometimes all of the fees they charge publishers is of course a business decision they are free to make. But should these discounts to consumers be financed by distribution fees which, in the case of indie publishers, are outrageously in excess of Amazon’s costs?

If the free market is allowed to work, competition will squeeze down the price eBook distributors can charge for their services to an amount that bears some relationship to the cost of providing those services. If the free market is allowed to work. In the long run, even the small fee IPG now charges may begin to seem like too much. If a bricks-and-mortar bookstore with all its high overhead expenses can make a profit buying its stock at a 46% discount from list price, an eBook reseller certainly should be able to thrive on a much, much lower margin.

Good book content, not being in any important sense digital, is not going to get much cheaper. The distribution of eBooks, however, is profoundly digital in nature and at the moment grotesquely overpriced. The distribution channel, not the process of content creation, is where legitimate eBook cost savings can be found.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated.

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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