This week, Faber publishes a six-title, ebook-only series called Faber Forty-Fives. Priced at £1.99, each of the six books is an edited extract from a larger, existing work on Faber’s Pop list. A one-off or should we expect to see digital-only works become the norm? Faber’s Dave Watkins tells us more.
This week, Faber publishes a six-title, ebook-only series called Faber Forty-Fives. Priced at £1.99, each of the six books (which are available of course from all ebook retailers) is an edited extract from a larger, existing work on Faber’s Pop list:
- Rob Chapman, Syd Barrett and British Psychedelia from Syd Barrett: A Very Irregular Head
- Rob Young, Fairport Convention and Electric Folk from Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music
- Michael Bracewell, Roxy Music and Art-Rock Glamour from Roxy: The Band That Invented an Era
- Nick Kent, The New Music Journalism from Apathy for the Devil
- Jon Savage, Sex Pistols and Punk from England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock
- Simon Reynolds, UK Post-Punk from Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978–1984
Publishing small pieces of content is something that, once the original work has been printed, is very difficult to do with a physical book. But it’s a more straightforward proposition in ebook, as the constraints of binding and glue no longer apply. Industry jargonauts refer to this as ‘chunking’ or, better still, the fabulously mangled ‘granularising’. Terrible terms, but a really interesting means of publishing.
We had been toying with ideas for a while, but the first proper opportunity came in 2010 when Amazon announced they were considering opening a UK equivalent of their US, ebook-only store, Kindle Singles. I work closely on the music list, and it struck me that by creating extracts of key cultural moments we could put together a sort of high-grade pop primer, from the late sixties to the eighties. The important point for me here is that the idea was a goer only because Faber enjoys a stock of truly excellent writing in this area. Forget the technical whatnots or increasingly febrile debate around ebook pricing – when it comes to it, it’s the writing that counts.
The first thing to do was to contact the authors and their agents to check they were happy to be included; formally, also, to obtain addenda to the contracts of the original books from which the extracts were drawn. And while this was in train, I put my mind to how we were to make the books themselves. For the past couple of years, I’ve been helping introduce to Faber a different production method for the way in which we make our books, both physical and digital. Most publishers create their ebooks as an add-on to the existing editorial and production processes, converting into digital formats from the final print file. What we’ve done at Faber is bring the technology of that ebook conversion process into our production chain. I understand that, for some, this is not a sentence to the set the heart racing, but it’s proven a really crucial step in enabling us to control the make-up of our digital works as well as our physical ones. And it allowed us, quickly and directly, to create the Faber Forty-Fives.
With the contractual stuff under way and the means of production in place, the next thing to think about was covers. This illustrates, if you forgive the pun, a crucial part of the ebook debate. There are many, many costs involved in making a book which have nothing to do with the physical artefact you hold in your hand. Among the book trade, it’s still quite rare to publish in ebook only. There is usually a physical version, too; and what this means is there is usually a cover that you can use to both embed within your ebook – a requirement for it to ‘validate’ – and to act as an online thumbnail. But, while derived from existing books, the Faber Forty-Fives had no direct physical counterparts. So I was in need of six covers, and covers cost money.
The aphorism may urge us not to judge a book by its cover, but in practice often a book lives or dies by its design. A recent article in the Guardian stated that for self-published authors help with cover design will on average increase earnings by 34 per cent. But with the ebook market still in its relative infancy, and with no physical equivalent to help shoulder some of the costs, the challenge was to create six designs at significantly reduced expense. The answer came in the form of a new designer in Faber’s art department, Luke, who brilliantly devised the series look. By adapting type and the colour scheme, we could differentiate between titles, but effectively the design remained unchanged, and this made the costs viable.
Covers sorted, the series was starting to come together. We waited for a go-live date for the Kindle Singles store from Amazon. And we waited. And waited.
The news arrived some time around the summer of 2011 that Amazon had decided not to press ahead with their Kindle Singles store, after all. This came as a real disappointment. We had hoped that the new store would provide marketing channels for digital-only books that are not always present in the main online shops. Successful ebooks often benefit from the marketing and publicity of their physical counterparts. Publishing into ebook only provides limited means of making readers aware that your title exists, and this can result in the tempation to lower prices, reducing the author’s return and making it even harder for the book to support its necessary costs.
But the idea stuck. The authors and agents had responded, without exception, extremely positively to the proposal, and it was this more than anything else that spurred me on to finish work and publish the series widely. Ultimately, it’s about the content, and the content is fantastic. I’m certain that the quality of the writing will see it through.
One of the questions we were asked about the Faber Forty-Fives was whether we had plans for any further titles. Again, coming back to the content – but very much related to the digital world in which we now live – this is a salient query. The near future is always harder to see in outline – to identify trends and movements – than what’s gone before, but I think there’s more to it than that. Simon Reynolds, in his excellent Retromania, explores how the past is catching up with us. Digital recording and distribution have opened up what was once very much a closed industry. In some ways, the effect of this has been to atomise musicians and listeners; you don’t tend to see the dominant tribal movements of decades past (although I do have the creeping anxiety that this is a result of my ageing rather than any seismic cultural shift!). But perhaps it’s also about pop gaining confidence and expanding as a medium. Whatever the answers, it’s an enquiry that I’m sure will be played out on the pop list over the coming years, and an enquiry in which short, digital-only works could well take an increasing role.
- Dave Watkins is Faber’s Head of Editorial Text Management
For more about the six Faber Forty-Fives read about them on the Quietus here.