Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.
Here’s a little perspective: In 1939, gas cost 10 cents a gallon at the pump. A movie ticket set you back 20 cents. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the year’s bestselling hardcover book, was $2.75. For a nation suffering 20 percent unemployment, books were an impossible expense.
But in just one day, Robert de Graff changed that. On June 19, 1939, the tall, dynamic entrepreneur took out a bold, full-page ad in The New York Times: OUT TODAY—THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS.
The ad was timed to coincide with the debut of his newest endeavor, an imprint called Pocket Books. Starting with a test run of 10 titles, which included classics as well as modern hits, de Graff planned to unleash tote-able paperbacks on the American market. But it wasn’t just the softcover format that was revolutionary: De Graff was pricing his Pocket Books at a mere 25 cents.
Despite its audacity, de Graff’s ad wasn’t brazen enough for his taste. A former publishing exec who’d cut his teeth running imprints for Doubleday, de Graff wanted the ad to read THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT WILL TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS. His business partners at Simon & Schuster were less confident and forced the edit. Even though some European publishers were making waves with paperbacks—Penguin in England and Albatross in Germany—New York publishers didn’t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.
They were wrong. It took just a week for Pocket Books to sell out its initial 100,000 copy run. Despite industry skepticism, paperbacks were about to transform America’s relationship with reading forever.
Italy isn’t known as a hotbed of digital publishing innovation or activity. In fact, ebooks only account for somewhere around 4% of publisher revenue in the country, according to Marcello Vena, director of digital business at RCS Libri, which owns book publisher Rizzoli, among other companies. (He’s also a DBW blogger.)
Yet, despite this nascent state of the market, Vena has been quietly building an innovation powerhouse at Rizzoli. He has a digital team that is dedicated to coming out with one new innovation project a quarter, Vena told me last week at the London Book Fair.
He outlines some of the innovations in a recent blog post:
– Digital-first imprint (Rizzoli First, July 2012)
– Ebook-streaming service on Italy’s high-speed trains (December 2012)
– Ebook streaming on Pinterest (May 2013)
– “Co-publishing,” a third way between traditional publishing and self-publishing (July 2013)
– Ebook and print bundling (December 2013)
– Online literary award for unpublished novels in partnership with Amazon (January 2014)
– The first immersive narrative ebook collection for kids in Italy (March 2014)
While some of these are more “innovative” than others by U.S. standards, for a market where ebooks are such a small percentage of the business, they’re downright revolutionary — and risky.