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Interview With Chad Post

Chad Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester, a press dedicated to publishing literature in translation, which he founded in 2007. In addition, he runs the Three Percent website, which receives more than three-quarters of a million visits per year and is home to the Translation Database, the Three Percent Podcast, and the Best Translated Book Awards (BTBAs).

Here he shares his experience as a print and digital publisher. Chad Post expresses his vision of the future of e-books and the ongoing difficulties of publicizing foreign authors in North America.

Interview conducted by Lucie Soureillat

Could you share how the digital book collection emerged in Open Letter?

Chad Post: Essentially, we'd always been planning on producing our titles as print and e-books. When Open Letter first launched though, a lot of foreign agents and publishers were wary of giving us e-book rights, so there are a handful of our early books that are only available as printed copies. Because of that, we waited until we had e-rights to nine books, then launched them simultaneously and at a reduced price to help draw attention to this collection. 

What strategies do you use to publicize your books and authors? Are social networks or initiatives like Goodreads good tools to promote foreign literature?

CP: We start with the normal, traditional forms of marketing--sending review copies to reviewers, booksellers, and tastemakers. The only thing that's really changed with that strategy over the past decade is who falls into the "tastemaker" category. With the advent of online reviewing, GoodReads reviewers, Twitter stars, and the like, we've expanded our range and send books to individual "super" readers--people who may not work for a traditional media outlet, but who have a lot of influence over a large number of followers. That's one way we engage with social networks. That and posting and reposting info about the press and our books, giving away tons of copies through GoodReads, finding people to follow and be in touch with, etc. But really, our biggest online promotional tool is the Three Percent website. We receive almost a million visits a year, mostly for content about translation in general, or books not published by Open Letter, but this has created a space in which we can interact with our readers--a huge benefit in today's world. 

Do you think that the distribution of digital books might possibly resolve the 3% problem for foreign literature in the United States?

CP: Not really. At least not in terms of e-book only press. The digital marketplace lowers the cost of entry--you don't need to print things, and you don't need to pay a distributor to warehouse them--but the core challenge of reaching readers is still there. In fact, it's significantly harder to market a e-only title than it is to market something that exists in both print and as an e-book. A lot of these e-only presses are paying translators and authors on the back end, as a higher percentage of sales, but unless they can sell a ton of books, that amount is very, very small. Which will be quite discouraging to anyone trying to make a career out of this. On a positive note, digital distribution allows a press to reach a much wider number of readers--people who live in towns without bookstores, etc. That's a big shift from the days of old, but, going back to my first point, means that publishers have to figure out how to market directly to customers, something that publishing has traditionally been pretty bad at. 

What is your model for paying the author/publisher/distributor? What would your ideal model be?

CP: Right now, for e-books, we pay the author/publisher 20% of the list price for our e-editions, and 5% to the translator. This is perfectly fine, since we pay these percentages on a $9.99 price no matter what the price point is for the book when it is actually sold. A lot of publishers don't work like that though, and would rather pay a percentage of net receipts. That makes complete sense, and allows them to try out different pricing--selling the book for $1.99 for one day only, etc.--without much risk. Authors/publishers/agents HATE that idea though since it means that they might get $0.20/sale for thousands of sales, and $2/sale for only a few dozen. This uncertainty and variance is unnerving. Which is why a number of our contracts with French publishers include a clause restricting the price of the e-version to 80% or more of the print price. That makes sense from their perspective, but is uber-annoying since it means that some of our e-books would be $14--a price that's much beyond what an average customer is willing to pay. 

What I'd LOVE to do is just agree to a flat rate (which is more or less how we pay our royalties now) and say that we'll give the author $2 for every copy sold and $0.50 to the translator. Then, if we want to experiment with different price points, we reduce our profit margin, but the author/translator are protected. That would provide security to the rights holder while also allowing us to use price as a tool for reaching a larger audience, which is the point of all of this anyway, right?

Your books are available for purchase on all major platforms (Kindle, Nook, iBooks). Can you recommend any best practices for the widest possible distribution of e-books?

CP: Some people use third party systems like Open Road or epubli, and that seems to work really well, both in terms of making the e-books available and marketing them to a wide range of readers. Basically, I think you have to have all of your titles available on all of the platforms, and that your price shouldn't be higher than $9.99. (Although I also advocate against $.99 books since they devalue the whole process of book buying. But that's a different topic.)

Does the availability of your e-books on all these platforms have a strong influence on their price?

CP: Not really. We made the decision long ago that we would charge $9.99 max for our e-books. That's a fair price, a price that readers are willing to pay (for now), and one that works within our financial structure. It also works within the wholesale model on Amazon, which gives us 70% on the sales of all of these e-books. Anything higher than that and we'd only get 35%. I suppose that plays a role, but honestly, I would've forced the price down to $9.99 regardless of Amazon's payout percentages. I just think that's the "right" price for an e-book. 

A recent study by Pricewaterhouse Cooper estimates that by the year 2016 half of all booksales will be e-books. Do you think there is any value in these spectacular estimations?

CP: No. It's Pricewaterhouse Cooper. They've predicted the same thing several times before and been wrong over and over. I think they really *want* this to be the case and will keep putting the idea into people's minds that "*everyone's* reading e-books, so you should to!" as a way of helping boost other corollary businesses related to e-books.