Digital Publishing Market and FanFiction – An Interview with Anna Von Veh
Anna von Veh has worked for various multinational publishing companies and speaks at publishing technology conferences around the globe on subjects related to digital publishing, as well as increasingly on fanfiction. Anna sees the potential in fanfiction’s embrace of the internet, technology and community as a model for publishing, and she is an avid fanfiction reader.
She presented most recently at the Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco, and we invited her to share her ideas with us about the ebook market and fanfics.
Widbook – At the beginning of 2014, we still find many ebooks that are just printed versions of a book reproduced as PDF. What would you like to see in the future of ebooks?
Anna von Veh - I wouldn’t really regard a PDF as an ebook, although sometimes for highly complex layouts, PDFs are, even now, an acceptable format for a kind of ‘digital’ book. (Of course simply scanning a print book and doing a ‘quick and dirty’ conversion is something that should be avoided.)
If one things of a digital ladder for books, then I’d put PDFs on the lowest rung, with the ‘traditional’ ebook such as a basic mobi file being a couple of rungs higher, with EPUB a bit higher, and perhaps EPUB3 being higher but below what might be one day for digital books. I think digital implies a much more fluid relationship with regards to text, format and context. In the future, I see ebooks being produced and published mainly on the web as it allows for that fluidity and context. Widbook of course is a company that is pursuing online book publishing, and another is Pressbooks which is based on WordPress and is aimed squarely at the both the traditional and self-publishing industry. And of course the other critical thing is to be able to publish ‘cleanly’ to smartphones, with some kind of purchasing model whether as apps or webnative.
For you, what is the biggest challenge for publishers around the world, in terms of ebook production and distribution?
The biggest challenge from a production point of view is changing from a reliance on desktop publishing, which is designed for production of individual products, primarily for print, and possibly too on on-premises installations of applications.
In order to both scale and become more agile, content management systems offer great advantages and ‘digital’ then is both the method of production and the output, with ebooks being just one of the output formats. CMSs enable scaling of a sort that is not common for smaller publishers and apart from IT savings, a move to the Cloud too adds mobility and 24/7 access, particularly for global companies. The larger publishers of course are all moving towards more ‘industrial’ approaches to ebook production. I’m wary though of using technology as the panacea of all ills in publishing. Book publishing is not just content and data; it involves emotion and aesthetics too.
The other big challenge, which has been well addressed by Baldur Bjarnason, is that one has in the end, little control over how one’s ebook is going to look in the different devices. It is probably the most frustrating aspect of producing ebooks. It would be simply wonderful if one had a standard format (say EPUB3, or something like it) which would become the ‘dvd’ of the publishing industry. But in many ways, the publishing industry gave power to the production houses and distribution companies years ago, and that horse may have bolted. Perhaps the web which is a standard of sorts will come to publishing’s rescue.
There are many anonymous writers with great potential, writing in blogs, websites or on their notebooks without having a place to share their thoughts and stories. Widbook and other platforms create opportunities for writing, reading and publishing content in a collaborative way. What do you think about this growth of books by anonymous authors published on platforms like Widbook?
I am a huge fan of the web for publishing, and a huge fan of fanfic both from a philosophical standpoint (I’ve written various articles on this so won’t go into that here), and also of its collaborative approach to writing and its commitment to community, all of which is facilitated by the internet.
So I think online platforms such as Widbook play an extremely important role in making new writers visible, and providing opportunities for them to share their work with readers and connect directly with social media. The internet is almost certainly something that publishers could be embracing more as a publishing platform.
Changing the subject a little, there is major growth of published fanfics on our platform, but we don‘t see many publishers interested in this category of writing. What do you think is the best publishing business model for fanfiction?
I wouldn’t presume to say what the best model is for this but I certainly think there is value in exploring a model that is both fair to the ‘original’ author and the fanfiction writers. My preference would be to encourage fanfiction writers and provide a percentage of the royalty to them, should they and the ‘original’ authors want to publish their work as an ebook. I proposed something of this sort at the Tools of Change Conference in Frankfurt last year and Hugh Howey is doing something similar.
I’m not sure though that fanfics need to be part of a business model as such. I think part of their power is that they are written for love, both for the stories they are based on and also for fellow readers. It may be that we shouldn’t mess with that. But I also don’t think that publishers need to dismiss fanfiction or see it as something to be stamped out or ignored. These are, after all, the readers who love the work more than anyone else. It is based on a gift economy. And perhaps it is a gift to publishers too in a marketing sense.
Finally, what tips would you leave for authors that are starting to write their fanfics?
The main suggestion would be to read, read, read, then write, write, write. And to honour the original story and writers in their writing, as that is what readers will respond to. I don’t mean by simply acknowledging the writer or story in the disclaimer that accompanies most fanfics, but really taking care to write characters that fellow readers will recognise and respond to, and to write a story that will complement the first or ‘original’ story, rather than simply reproduce it.
Anna von Veh – @saybooks