Indie presses have been slower than the trade houses to make their books available as e-books, for obvious reasons—less capital for risky ventures and no dedicated in-house digital departments chief among them—but by now, most presses are getting their digital programs underway. Lots of them are looking to Northampton, Mass., Small Beer Press, headed by husband and wife team Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant, as a model for how an indie can get a robust e-book program going. Small Beer publishes a wide array of fantasy and literary titles and is one of the first literary presses to make most of its titles available as e-books through a variety of channels. According to Grant, “should e-books take off in a larger way than they have, we are positioned for it.”

Grant said Small Beer decided to invest more heavily in e-books after doing a few Creative Commons releases, including an electronic version of Link's first book, which was downloaded over 17,000 times from sites like Scribd and Mobile Reads. “So we knew that readers were out there,” said Grant. “I see the free books as advertising, or the equivalent of library books.” The press has gone on to make many of its current titles available as paid e-books in the Kindle store, Fictionwise, Follett for the library market and other sites. The press also sells DRM-free PDFs through its own site. Grant believes DRM is counterproductive: “We treat it as if we sold a physical book. It's the consumer's property, and they can do anything with it.”

Grant is under no illusions, however, that e-books are likely to be a cash cow any time soon. Up until now, e-books have accounted for about 1% of the press's annual sales. “This year I expect that it's going to be 3%—4%, due to the Kindle,” he said. The difficulty with e-books for indie presses is that, while there aren't the production costs for making a physical book, it's still expensive to get e-books distributed. “At the moment, the production cost for e-books is quite high in order to get the e-books onto a lot of different sites. Plus, we're expected to offer a lower price,” Grant said.

A key for Grant is to offer a good-looking book in whatever format. “I don't want our books to appear in 14-point font with the characters all mixed up. We want to provide a reading experience that is akin to reading our print books,” said Grant. Small Beer has e-book rights to its whole fall list and about two-thirds of its backlist. If other indies follow suit, tech-savvy readers of what Grant calls “slightly offbeat” books, which are largely the province of the indies, have a lot to look forward to.