When Karen Hunter started noticing a shift in publishing a few years back, she says, “I was treated like Chicken Little.” A journalist for more than 15 years, the co-author of several books—including the best-selling I Make My Own Rules with L.L. Cool J—and a self-professed tech geek, she says she told her co-workers at Simon & Schuster, “Something’s going on that we need to capitalize on.” Just like at most publishing companies, Hunter’s warnings went unheeded, and as she puts it, “We got jacked.” Digital publishing exploded, and even now—as ereaders flood the market—many companies are still trying to figure out how to make money from ebooks. Now, with the Jan. 11 launch of First One Digital Publishing, Hunter is trying to make up ground and help publishing regain some of its power with a new business model.
Traditional publishing houses have struggled with ebooks, still looking at print for their bread and butter. It’s been companies like Amazon and Google—with offerings like the Kindle and Google Books— that have been leading the charge when it comes to making ebooks mainstream. “Putting out good books is the job of a publisher, not the device,” says Hunter, but up until now, ebooks have been an after-thought to much of mainstream publishing.
“Our first title is Good Cop, Bad Money by former New York City Inspector and 9/11 hero, Glen Morisano,” she says. “It is a memoir co-authored by Hollywood writer John Lansing, chronicling Glen’s life growing up in Staten Island in a tough organized-crime-ridden neighborhood in an abusive home…and [and the decision] to, instead of wallowing in his condition, make a difference.”
One of the most common complaints heard from the major publishing houses is that ebooks are too inexpensive and don’t make enough money to sustain the business. With an all-digital strategy at First One, Hunter says a completely different business model will keep the company afloat. “I don’t have a huge rent, a huge insurance bill…We’re nimble. We’re a 2010-2011 company,” says Hunter. In other words, First One will open its (virtual) doors without the legacy costs that weigh down established publishers. “These houses were founded by men who thought out of the box but now they’ve succumbed to corporate laziness, and complacency,” she adds.
Hunter is using her nearly 20 years of experience in publishing to find freelance editors, designers, copy-editors, and other production staff. “Our headquarters are in Cincinnati; I’ve been there once,” she says. By working in a virtual office environment, First One is avoiding large overhead costs, which also allows the company the flexibility to rethink the way publishing deals are made. No boilerplate contracts. No literary agents. No advances. Instead authors will get a share of a book’s sales—if it doesn’t sell, neither the author nor the publisher makes money. This, Hunter says, incentivizes everyone involved to get out and market the book.
The all-digital workflow also allows for shorter time to market for books, says Hunter: “To give you an idea of length of time. Good Cop, Bad Money took about 3 months to put out. We signed NBA great Allan Houston for a Father’s Day release. We haven’t started writing that one, but it will be ready by June. Al Sharpton’s book, which we also haven’t started, will be ready in the fall. I don’t consider these crashes... That’s the beauty of the new world of publishing.” In a traditional publishing house 3 months is barely enough time to get a book fully copyedited. The shorter production schedule also allows for relevant content to make it to the market before it becomes, well, irrelevant. Hot celebrity personalities can get their books on the “shelves” before their fifteen minutes of fame fade. Innodata is the company doing the conversions and making the ebooks available in multiple formats on the website.
With literary agents out of the way Hunter is also looking to change the ways she finds authors. New writers toiling away in the shadows, tired of rejection, may do well to turn to First One and its contest to find the next big star. “We’re launching first with the contest because I want to establish that I know there are some fantastic writers out there and I want to find them—give them a home. Just as American Idol brought us Fantasia, Kelly Clarkson and a host of others, I want to deliver the next Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Nicholas Sparks.”
Also available at launch will be a book club app. “I don’t ever want to depend on the bookstores,” says Hunter. First One is reaching out direct to consumers using the app, asking authors to meet with book clubs via webcasts, and by giving away ereaders and ebooks each month. Hunter adds, “There is a captive audience of 10,000-15,000 people who will buy our books.”
Of course, a new company can’t afford to completely reject the infrastructure of its industry. So First One will be selling ebooks through major retailers (and ereader developers) like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Customers will be able to download books directly from the First One website in any format—PDF, ePub, etc. Hunter is also planning on fully embracing social media at First One. “Publishing has no personality,” she says, and explains that she is planning a blog devoted to the culture of publishing—almost like TMZ for writers.
A project not quite like any other, First One is daring to go where so many publishers have still not dared to tread. Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google may have brought ebooks to the masses, but thus far, few publishers (if any) seem confident enough to take print completely out of the equation. For many the biggest question about First One will be “What took so long?”