In and around the nation’s capital, publishers and distributors are hard at work on offbeat and innovative ideas. While engineers in the basement of National Geographic’s headquarters are reviewing a children’s book to test its effectiveness, Library Ideas is producing rechargeable children’s read-along books that leave books with CDs in the dust. North of the city, Recorded Books is perfecting ways to make its app more popular on smartphones, and nearby Rowman & Littlefield is shepherding content from its dozens of publishers, partners, and imprints into curated digital platforms designed specifically for researchers.
Drawing on the immense resources of the nation’s capital, these publishers are approaching books as a center of gravity for an increasingly sophisticated set of multimedia assets that cater to audiences who consume information in vastly different ways. As a result, when librarians flock to Washington, D.C., for the American Library Association Annual Conference later this month, they’ll find a cadre of publishers who know the demands they face.
PW explored D.C.-area publishers to discover how they are working in a multimedia world, including straightforward book redesigns to massive digital initiatives.
There’s an App for That
John Shea, RB Media’s chief product and marketing officer, knows that smartphone users never swipe to the second screen of apps on their devices. “People don’t want to use 20 different apps,” he says. “Statistically, they use five apps most of the time.” With more than 40,000 audiobooks in the catalogue of RB Media’s Recorded Books division and 7,000 more being published this year, the company is determined to make it into users’ top five with RB’s digital app.
Though the nation’s largest publishers have in-house audiobook divisions, RB Media has pursued an aggressive strategy to acquire and partner with small- and medium-size publishers for audiobook content in recent years. In the past two years alone, they’ve struck agreements to create and distribute audio content from Harvard Business Review Press, Kensington, Oxford University Press, and John Wiley.
At the same time, RB Media has also developed its own imprints, including a newly launched politics and current events division, which is set to publish audiobooks by Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke. “For so long, fiction was north of 70% of the audio business,” Shea says. “So there are some categories of nonfiction like this that have been underrepresented over time.”
The main platform for RB Media’s content is its app, which was overhauled in 2017 and debuted with e-books and magazines alongside the audiobook catalogue. With data from users, focus groups, and librarians, the company has continued to refine the app while adding new types of content, including comics and streaming video tutorials, to meet users’ needs.
Chief content officer Troy Juliar says that with more than 6,400 library partners, RB is able to learn about different markets and their needs, follow general trends, and then design packages for libraries that lower their costs by targeting the types of content that get the most use. For instance, he says that “we’ve seen an over-170% increase in the circulation of digital magazines over the last year, and in higher ed we see the most demand for audio.”
Shea says that RB’s push to enter users’ top five apps aligns with the hopes of the librarians who turn to the company for the product. “We’re trying to offer top-quality content all in a single app so your patrons are likely to use more of your content.”
Starting with a Book
For every book National Geographic puts out, a team of people and a community of outside experts is on hand, shaping the facts, stories, images, and maps that fill their titles. A forthcoming book titled Native American History and Culture has more than a dozen advisers from the First Nations and a Native American librarian closely reviewing the final product.
Other titles go to We Need Diverse Books and children’s librarians to ensure that they speak to all readers, and a forthcoming children’s book about a hamster titled Zeus the Mighty went to a professor of Greek mythology for a first read.
National Geographic books also go to interested readers in-house for quality control. “Solve This is about engineering,” says Becky Baines, kids’ media v-p and editorial director, “and we have our engineers in the basement here at Nat Geo working on how they would solve these problems.”
National Geographic’s children’s division alone ships eight to nine million books a year, and though the publisher continues to create new content, its almanac and world atlas remain perennial bestsellers for the company. That staying power is why, even though National Geographic has more than 100 million Instagram followers, a television station, and a robust digital presence, books are still considered by Lisa Thomas, senior v-p, editorial director, and publisher, to be the company’s “tentpole initiatives”: efforts that reach the entirety of National Geographic’s audience across all platforms.
The publisher is set to unveil its next tentpole initiative in October with the publication of Women: The National Geographic Collection. “Next year is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, and we feel there’s some important storytelling to do throughout the year,” Thomas says. The publisher is getting an early start because of the size of the effort, which will involve every partner within National Geographic in a program called the Women of Impact Initiative. Editorial director and magazine editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg is leading the effort and edited the book, which includes 25 interviews that she conducted with women from around the world, including Jacinda Adern, Christiane Amanpour, Laura Bush, and Oprah Winfrey. Portraits of the women are also included, and the selected images were mined from the 130-year-old photographic collection in the institution’s archives.
Content from the book will then be excerpted in a special issue of National Geographic magazine in November, kicking off the year’s events and programming, which will include a live event on National Geographic’s TV channel and additional shows, as well as a Facebook group called Women of Impact.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Brian Downing, Library Ideas’ CEO and cofounder, has an even demeanor and a calm voice, but he is passionate about the belief that good books, paired with good technology, belong in the hands of librarians. Downing launched Library Ideas 10 years ago with a Spotify-like platform called Freegal Music, which allows library patrons to stream music on their own devices. Over time, the company has grown, but technology and media remain at its core. “Tech development is one of our strengths,” Downing says, “and our key channels are libraries, schools, and the U.S. Military.”
In 2012, Library Ideas got into the e-book business, developing what Downing says was “the first service that was pay-per-click.” He adds, “Libraries could get 100,000 e-books for no up-front costs, so they could just pay for what they use.” While other e-book developers at the time were focused largely on frontlist titles, Downing built the Library Ideas to emphasize midlist titles and quickly found a client base.
Today, Library Ideas has more than 5,000 customers in 25 countries and counts state library networks from Kansas to Virginia among them. Downing continues to find ways to bring technology to books, most recently with the development of a product to replace children’s books that have a CD read-along component.
In 2017, Library Ideas purchased Vox Books, which was developing a book that could play a recording of the text from a rechargeable-battery-powered MP3 and built-in speaker. “The problem we were solving was that CDs were not a great format for libraries,” Downing says. “They were being lost, damaged, and stolen, and so we saw an opportunity to build the audio into the book.”
Downing and his team licensed books for the kindergarten–to–third-grade market from other children’s publishers and perfected a version of the newly designed read-along books that they brought to market. “Now you can just press play,” Downing says. “It’s become one of the most popular products we have in libraries and schools.”
Library to Library
Rowman & Littlefield and National Book Network are based just outside of Washington in Lanham, Md., and their reach is increasingly global. In the past two years, the company has continued its string of acquisitions, purchasing Hal Leonard—which was merged into the Globe Pequot Trade Division—as well as Finney Co. and McBooks. At the same time, a London office has grown from two staffers to 19.
“There’s of course an increasing international dimension to the group, which has its decades of history focusing primarily on the U.S. market,” says Oliver Gadsby, president of the academic and professional division at R&L. Larger academic and educational publishers are downsizing, but he sees room for growth in international markets and believes that Rowman’s strength lies in its publishing partnerships and new ventures that take its publications to research libraries in digital form.
A growing partnership for R&L is located a short drive from the company’s headquarters. The Library of Congress had published two hardback versions of Sondheim on Music, which looked at the library’s holdings of famed composer Stephen Sondheim’s works. “They were very long and extensive,” says Stephen Ryan, senior acquisitions editor for arts and literature. In a copublishing agreement with Rowman, editors created an abridged version that they call the "less-is-more edition,” which will sell for $20 in paperback for trade readers. “It’s a phrase that Sondheim himself uses a lot,” Ryan says. “The book has some new material, and we removed all the reference material to make it accessible to general readers rather than academics.”
The collaboration went so well that Rowman plans to propose a larger copublishing arrangement for a series with the Library of Congress. “They have so many people doing research at the library, looking at background information on projects that they’re working on,” Ryan says. “What we’re going to propose is partnering with them for those authors and those projects, but very much focused on what we think we do best. Because we’re their hometown publisher, we can look at a lot of subject matter that’s more in tune with what they have in their archives. It would be text driven, but a lot of photo imagery as well.”
Jon Sisk, Rowman’s v-p and senior executive acquisitions editor for American government, public policy, and American history, says that successful partnerships “give us access to expertise and brand, and the Library of Congress is no better example of that.” In return, the publisher provides partners with knowledge of the marketplace and how to position their books.
One way that Rowman is opening those markets is through a new digital platform for research libraries. The Select Collections Platform is a digital collection of Rowman publications that allows researchers to browse through curated collections online. To date, the platform has six collections on topics including security and intelligence, Asian studies, and social movements and resistance.
Gadsby says Rowman intends to experiment with the collections and hone them over time, trying out different selections of backlist and frontlist titles. “For us, this is just a start,” he says. It’s also indicative of the company’s belief that the academic and library market remains strong for well-positioned publishers. “We have confidence in teaching and learning as a fundamental opportunity in which there is a place for the book and associated materials, and we’re backing that,” Gadsby adds.
Books at Digital Speed
Twice a year, hundreds of the world’s leaders on financial and economic issues gather to hear the most pressing issues facing the global economy at the International Monetary Fund’s conferences. At each event, each attendee is handed a bound full-color book, illustrated with graphs and charts, running more than 200 pages. What the attendees do not know is that the book was not even complete eight days earlier. “We are producing books on a newspaper schedule,” says IMF Press publisher Jeffrey Hayden.
Twenty years ago, the IMF communicated solely through its publications. “The fund used to say very little, and when it did, it did it through a report,” Hayden says. Since then, things have changed. “We have entered the modern age, and we have robust media and digital operations and outreach to a broad public.”
Even the publisher’s flagship publications—the semiannual reports, the Fiscal Monitor, the Global Financial Stability Report, and the World Economic Outlook—are now largely read in digital formats. Still, Hayden says, there are thousands of library and individual patrons who subscribe to receive physical copies of the books.
Production of the IMF’s three flagship reports begins as soon as the previous edition of each is completed, and each of the three volumes is produced by a separate department within the IMF. “It’s hardwired into the operations,” Hayden says. “The authoring teams in those departments spend the bulk of their time analyzing the global economy, collecting the data, analyzing models, and running reports.”
Hayden then has a team of editors who interact with the teams in each department, following their work and guiding the writing process all the way until the PDFs are sent to a local printer, who turns around the physical copies in a matter of days. The brightly colored books have undergone a redesign to stand out more prominently, and Hayden says that they continue to be an iconic representation of the IMF today.
Hayden notes that even though the IMF has a digital-first approach, books remain the core signifier of legitimacy for the organization and aren’t going anywhere soon. “If you want traction for your policies, those policies typically rest on scholarship, so you have to establish the credibility of your scholarship,” he says. “I think books remain a great way of doing that because there’s an investment that authors put into their books. They stand as a testament to good scholarship, and that serious scholarship can help create the foundation for the policy proposal and the policy suggestion.”