Sarah MacLachlan remembers her first e-reader. It was the Rocket eBook, which lifted off in 1998 and soon crashed back to earth. Although the device never caught on, MacLachlan, then a VP at Publisher’s Group West, ever so briefly glimpsed the future.
“I gave the Rocket eBook to my then nine-year-old daughter,” recalls MacLachlan, now the president and publisher of House of Anansi Press. “They had already loaded onto it Alice in Wonderland. And she read all of [it] on the Rocket eBook. And it didn’t phase her one bit. And I thought, well, that’s interesting …
“I will admit to not thinking it would take off in the way it ultimately has,” she adds.
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But how to harness this? That’s something Anansi is still figuring out. On a recent Friday morning, members of the Anansi brain trust — MacLachlan, editor Jared Bland and Erin Mallory, the company’s manager, cross-media group — meet with Jeffrey Remedios and David Harris, the president and co-founder and vice-president of marketing and business development, respectively, of Toronto indie music label Arts & Crafts, to discuss ways the two companies could work together on digital initiatives.
“There’s probably some learned lessons that we could try to distill and share with you,” Remedios says. “Napster came in in ’99 and completely disrupted the music industry. The music industry’s reaction was to try to sue Napster out of business. It took from ’99 until April ’03 for the industry to actually have an economically driven response to the mp3, and that was through Apple.”
“I think the difference between what happened with music and what is happening with books is that we did sort of learn from music,” MacLachlan says.
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Since many Anansi’s books were acquired before the existence of e-readers, and therefore before the existence of digital rights, they’ve had to negotiate with authors throughout the process. Digital rights, says Matt Williams, the company’s vice-president of publishing operations, only began to appear in contracts around the turn of the century. “There are a couple of authors … who have not given us e-book rights,” he says.
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Mallory envisions transforming the print product into something with audio, video and photographic slide shows. “A companion piece to the print edition, rather than a strict replication,” she says.
“What would you price a product like that?” Harris asks.
“The Northwords pieces, as a compilation — there were five pieces — is $4.99,” MacLachlan says.
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Digital revenues at Anansi are growing. Last year, e-books accounted for 8% of sales. “So far in 2012, we’re running about double that — 16% of so,” Williams says. “For a bestseller like The Sisters Brothers that percentage is slightly higher, in that case about 19%.” A recently-published study by BookNet Canada revealed that e-books now account for approximately 16% of the Canadian market.
Of digital sales, they sell the most e-books through Kobo, which was launched by Indigo in 2009 but is now owned by Japanese conglomerate Rakuten. Amazon’s Kindle does not have a Canadian store, though MacLachlan wouldn’t oppose one: “I think it would be good if they started a store. And I probably will be villified for having said so. I think the more, the merrier.”