Blackstaff Launch eBook List

The Belfast-based publisher celebrates their 40th anniversary by joining the ebook revolution

For 40 years Blackstaff Press have published some of the freshest, funniest and most thought-provoking literature in Northern Ireland. Now, to prove that this old publishing house can learn new tricks, they are launching an eBook list. And to help publicise the launch CultureNorthernIreland is running a Facebook competition to win a Kindle.

‘I suppose we have been thinking about it for a while,’ managing editor Patsy Horton explains. ‘It is a growing market. More and more people are reading eBooks and using eReaders, and I think it is our job as a publisher to give them the content they want to read in the format they want to read it. We want people to keep reading.’

And people do want eBooks, whether they read them on an e-reader, a laptop, a tablet device or even their phone. In 2010 eBook sales were 5% of the book-buying market. In 2011 Amazon, whose latest Kindle device is omnipresent in Christmas ads this year, revealed that they sold more eBooks than hard-copy books. And Dorchester Publishing have abandoned the traditional publishing format entirely for eBook catalogues and print-on-demand.

Producing digital content is obviously a good move for the big boys of publishing, but what about smaller, independent publishers? Have they had the same success?

‘There’s just not a lot of data out there for small publishers,’ Horton says, shrugging. ‘Not even in terms of pricing or the market. I think Amazon has a lot of information, but they aren’t really releasing it.’

As a result of that dearth of information this ‘first wave’ of eBooks from Blackstaff Press is very much a work in progress.

‘We have learnt a lot this year,’ she says. ‘Over the next year year we are going to learn a lot more. It is a steep learning curve.’

Horton has selected an eclectic mix of books from Blackstaff’s current and back-catalogue to find out which do best on the eBook market. Will books like Dream On by John Richardson and Blue Cabin by Mike Faulkner, whose authors have a strong and active online presence, outperform classic literature like Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride or important non-fiction like A Time to Speak by Helen Lewis?

The price of eBooks, always a bit of a bugbear for eBook readers, is also something that Horton plans to ‘tweak’ as they go along. At the moment the rule of thumb they are working with is ‘20% less than a paper copy’.

‘Pricing is up for grabs at the moment,’ she grins. ‘We are going to monitor it and see what happens. I don’t think you need to price eBooks incredibly cheaply though. Faber have an app for The Waste Land out at the moment that’s £9.99. Obviously an app is a lot more work than an eBook, but it is a model of what can be done.’

For the moment Horton is focused on the launch of the eBook catalogue and gradually making all of the Blackstaff’s back-catalogue available in e-format. However, she does – cautiously – admit that the move into eBook publishing might allow them to take a few commissioning risks.

‘I think it will free us up to experiment more – to some extent,’ she said. ‘There are still editorial and developmental costs involved, even though you don’t have to pay for print or storage. And the challenge will be changing our mind-set, thinking digitally from concept.’

Horton doesn’t believe that the eBook revolution will ever do away completely with paper and ink books. People who love books, who want to read them over and over again, will still want the tactile experience of turning pages. Although it might, she notes, lead to a resurrection of the hard-back novel market.

Either way, what Blackstaff Press wants for their digitally enabled future catalogue is the same thing they have always wanted: ‘It’s what I want as a reader. Content that will excite and challenge.’

Oh, and anyone thinking of getting an e-reader this Christmas? CultureNorthernIreland’s own Lee Henry will have his book available in eBook from Blackstaff in May 2012.

Go to the Blackstaff Press website to see what eBooks are available.