The Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference (AWP) began decades ago as a meet-up for academic creative writing departments, students, and writers. It has grown, especially in recent years, into a kind of BEA of the small press and literary publishing world, a massive event where not only writers, writing teachers, and students but also publishers come to make contact, show off their wares, and attend readings and panels about literary and industry trends. PW has covered the conference for years, but at this year's conference, held in Boston March 6–9, is the first time we presented a panel ourselves, called Breaking Digital Ground: E-books and Small Press Literary Publishing.

E-books still account for so many of the question marks in the book business, especially for smaller publishers, most of whom let the big trade houses test the waters, develop the technology, take the big risks, and absorb the failures. It is only in the past couple of years, as e-reading has become widespread and migrated from standalone e-ink devices to smartphones and the ubiquitous tablets that seem to be in everyone's hands, that many indie publishers have engaged with e-books in a big way. We figured it was about time to find out how indie presses were doing in the e-book arena, what successes and failures they'd had, and what their plans were for the near and distant future.

We convened representatives from four indie presses of different sizes and with different goals, all of whom are making big bets on e-books. On the panel were Dennis Johnson, publisher of Melville House books; Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press; John Oakes, publisher of OR books; and Amelia Bentley, e-book coordinator for the poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press. They spoke and answered questions before a live audience in Boston this past March, and then PW conducted interviews with them afterward to bring the panel to the page.

More than anything else, these publishers spoke about the challenges of duplicating the kind of care and craftsmanship they bring to the print books as they publish e-books. As part of this process, they wondered whether an e-book really is a digital equivalent to a print book, or if it's something else entirely, meant to be used differently. They were skeptical of the big business interests and technology companies—Google, Amazon, Apple—that produce many of the reading devices and control the retail terms for e-books. They considered whether e-books could open new avenues of not just commerce but art as well. And they remained deeply committed to print, but, more than anything, committed to their communities of readers, who are really the backbone of the small press world. Nonetheless, they all acknowledged the tremendous pressure to move deeper into e-books.

These indie publishers are among the mavericks of the book world, so they offered some unconventional ideas and strategies. OR Books, for instance, doesn't favor print or digital books and in fact does all of its print books POD and distributes itself, so it has no inventory and therefore a low overhead. Copper Canyon, the largest U.S. publisher devoted exclusively to poetry, raised over $100,000 to start its e-book program and find a way to solve the very practical problem of digital text ruining poetry's line breaks when reflowing. Graywolf's e-book plans look very much like those of trade publishers, but even they see opportunities for not just new sales channels but new literary forms. Melville's Johnson wonders whether the e-book has even found its true form yet.

Getting Started

The first questions we asked of these publishers at AWP: When did each press start publishing e-books? Why did they start then? And what were the challenges in getting their e-books programs running? McCrae recalled that Graywolf was a bit ahead of the curve with its first e-book: "Our first e-book was a Rocket e-book edition of John Haines's The Stars, The Snow, The Fire, which I believe we issued in 2000 along with the first Graywolf paperback edition. I think we sold about 50 copies." (The Rocket e-book reader was produced by a company called NovuMedia until 2000.) Graywolf's first contemporary e-book was produced outside of its distribution deal with Macmillan/FSG: "We brought out Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses in 2007," said McRae, "dealing directly with Amazon. Our first e-book via Macmillan was Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, in June 2010; Lewis wrote a special afterword for it. We started releasing e-books simultaneously with print books as a matter of course in August 2010," though Graywolf still does not publish e-book editions of its poetry titles.

As for the difficulties of starting to publish e-books, McCrae has a funny story: "Early on, our editor found it tough to adjust to errors a computer, as opposed to a human, would make; it was tougher to spot the computer-type errors. In one case during a conversion all the Bs had been changed to Cs"—a decided downgrade. McCrae also pointed out that some of the things that make publishing print books exciting—working with the book object, with the text on the page—are much more difficult when working digitally: "Dealing with the conversion of older files is also challenging. Dealing with any special formatting—poetry extracts, images, lists, really any ‘designed' text—is tricky," she said. "If there's a lot of it in any given book, the conversion is more expensive, because it has to be set up separately, and it needs to be proofed carefully. Because that text is not just run through a conversion program, errors are more likely to crop up."

Copper Canyon struggled with these specific kinds of problems, too, the most obvious of which is how to preserve a poet's line breaks, which are essential to a poem's ability to communicate, when changes in the font or text size on an e-reader cause the text to reflow and break the lines differently. According to Bentley, "The e-book program was begun in January 2011, but the first e-books were not released until fall and winter 2012. During this time we worked to develop e-book-specific front and back matter, and establish a workflow. In an industry that's very much still adjusting it's shape, we really needed this time to learn how print publishing languages and computer languages speak to one another."

To achieve its goal of creating a high-quality poetry e-book that is as rich a reading experience as the print edition, Copper Canyon had to do a lot more work on individual books than most publishers do. Bentley said, "Because we are not using automated conversion, which treats poetry especially roughly, we engaged proofers, book designers and individuals at [the Perseus digital division] Constellation who ‘handcraft' the e-book titles according to our requests." Copper Canyon's solution to the line-break problem was adding a special "Note to Reader" at the front of every e-book (see photo, p . 31), which, according to Bentley, "indicates to readers what length the longest line in the book will be, and allows them to adjust their settings accordingly. It also indicates how turnlines caused by reflowing will be visually marked." It's a whole other realm of figurative language for poetry publishers to consider.

Oakes notes that OR was an e-book publisher right from its founding in December 2009. Because it deals exclusively with prose, and because it goes into the publishing process with e-books in mind, its challenges aren't technical but marketing-related. "Because from the start we did our own distribution—selling our books on a pre-paid, nonreturnable basis—and focused on selling direct to consumers, the biggest challenge was and remains to develop a broad and varied audience," said Oakes.

Johnson said, "I don't quite buy the idea that an e-book is a xerox of a print book, but that's what the marketplace is treating it like right now." He sees different uses for e-books, though he's only beginning to imagine what many of them might be: "The jury is still out on what an e-book is," he said. Melville House publishes some poetry, which made Johnson think about what formats are best suited to what kinds of books: "Maybe the ideal way to read poetry," he said, "is on a printed page. It's conceivable that there are ideal ways to read different formats and different genres." Johnson stressed the need to "let digital media be what it's going to be—it'll be exciting to watch it happen, but it's kind of being prevented from happening" by anxiety about sales.

Some Interesting Developments

These indie publishers are trying some novel approaches to using e-books. Melville, for instance, has its Hybrid Book project, through which it bundles an additional e-book with the print and digital edition of its Art of the Novella series titles, its set of public domain fiction books; the e-book isn't a digital edition of the print book, said Johnson: "If you buy one you get this e-book–only edition. It contains contemporaneous material related to the book. We call the extra material the ‘illuminations.' They're complete e-books. The one for Bartleby includes things like letters Melville was writing, the philosophy he was reading, the replies he got from his correspondence, contemporary criticism of the book, maps, color art, things that would be prohibitively expensive to do in print." So Johnson sees an e-book as a way adding value to an existing text, making Melville House's edition of a public domain work stand out.

Copper Canyon, along with launching its e-book list, is beginning to publish e-book–only editions, such as Textu, a book of poems written in text messages by Yale Younger Poetry Series winner Fady Joudah. Copper Canyon hopes to work with its authors to develop projects that use the digital medium to bring poetry to wholly new places.

McCrae, on the other hand, sees the rise of e-books spurring new developments in print books: "We have noticed physical books getting more physical. More authors are asking for illustrations, for example. Ander Monson's next book of nonfiction will have very distinct design features that cannot be reproduced digitally—unbound sheets in a box, or some such."

God's Gift to Publishing

While the industry standard for e-book sales may be 25%–30% of total sales, most of these presses have different numbers for very different reasons. McCrae said, "Our bestselling physical book Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, is also our bestselling e-book. In general, our bestselling e-books are also our bestselling physical books. E-book sales are running at about 10% of our total sales revenue."

Because OR doesn't favor print or digital and has no legacy structures that end up emphasizing print, according to Oakes, "In terms of percentage, it varies widely from book to book, but I'd say we average at least 30% of sales [from e-books]. On some titles, particularly those relating to the Internet, the situation is reversed, and we sell many more e-books than we do print books."

Michael Wiegers, executive editor of Copper Canyon and the driving force behind its e-book initiative, chimed in to say that, "Although we jumped on the bandwagon thinking our books would equal 10% of sales, we've not quite reached that yet, in large part because our early efforts were geared toward backlist conversions. We're now seeing that with good frontlist publicity, sales are decent. Our award winners and high-profile publicity recipients are selling . We've invested over $100k in our e-book program, and we expect that will eventually earn out, but there's not yet the critical mass to make that so."

Johnson didn't offer any concrete numbers, but noted that, with Melville's Novellas series, which comprises titles that are in the public domain and so are published by many houses in various kinds of editions, the "illuminations" for e-books was first conceived as a sales strategy: "It was something we thought up to give booksellers as a tool, as an answer to why they should sell our classic instead of someone else's. We've gotten good feedback from booksellers, readers, and academics, and we're getting lots of adoptions."

Oakes said he sees e-books as "God's gift to publishing." The small sales some publishers encounter are due to imposing notions about how print sells onto e-books: "I don't see how you couldn't make money on e-books, unless you insist on making the poor things bear the financial weight of all that goes into a print book. Once we've done the typesetting and design for the print model, it takes a few hundred dollars at most to transform that into a nifty e-book. Then: no returns; no warehousing; no shipping issues; barely any staff time overseeing the delivery of the little darlings."

These four publishers make clear that there are still more questions than answers when it comes to e-books, though there are also a lot more e-books. Is OR's low-overhead model the future of publishing? Will e-books become popular accessories for print books, like Melville's Hybrid project? Will poetry find a strong foothold on screens? Are we at the dawn of a new age of new experiments with print books, as McCrae suggests? We'll see. There are likely to be some answers before next year's AWP conference. What's certain, though, is that new developments in digital reading are now as likely to come from indie presses as from the big six.