I just read a very good and unusual novel, I Have to Tell You by Victoria Hetherington. It’s the friendship of two young women — hungry for life and meaning, trying to make sense of who they are when they’re alone and who they are with other people, and making all kinds of mistakes — told through a medley of voices, their own and those of people they know, as well as emails, Google searches, and journal entries. The story unfolds like pleats on a fan being opened very slowly, the author revealing crucial moments from unexpected angles and points of view. The book is lovely, slow, and liquid, an accomplished debut. Just don’t look for it on Amazon.
The book came to my attention when I received an email from Andrew Lipstein, creator and editor of 0s&1s Novels, the digital house that published this first novel by the Canadian Hetherington. He wrote asking if I could review one of his titles, and I responded that I was too busy finishing a novel and to wish me luck. He assured me I didn’t need any luck. I told him obviously I did, as I was emailing back and forth with him and not actually working on the novel. It went on from there — until finally he recommended a particular cocktail to have when I was done. I am not a White Russian fan so I didn’t take him up on that suggestion, but when my draft was done — and the drinking too — I couldn’t help but write him and say, okay, send the book. He emailed it to me.
I wanted to read the book, but first I had to get over a prejudice. I am not an ereader fan. I have a Nook; I’ve read exactly two books on it, and now I can’t find it. I like paper and I like reading old-fashioned books with pages I can turn down and print I can underline. I’m with Italo Calvino, who recommends that, before you read a novel: “Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat.” For me, that position is curled up in bed. My laptop is old. The battery runs out quickly. Something about a power cord attached to an extension cord stretching across my blankets and sheets and pillows seems anathema to reading. I get up and work at my desk. I do not bring my computer to bed.
Nevertheless I downloaded and read this novel on my laptop. To my surprise, I found it very convenient. I could stop working and read a chapter and not feel guilty. It wasn’t like I was looking at puppies available for adoption, or reading about conjoined twins in Minnesota, or checking social media to see which of my colleagues had published in which fancy-ass place that would never have me. I was doing real reading. The only problem was it was too easy to let that one chapter stretch into two, or three, or four. I found myself reading instead of working. And then, yes, I caved and brought my computer to bed, placing more pillows behind me. Without my desk or stacks of work beside me, the cord and the hard plastic corners of my device were not as hostile as I had imagined.
I went on Andrew’s website, 0s-1s.com (the name is a nod to computer code), looking for more guilt-free time wasting in the form of another of his titles. There I found a new kind of bookstore. Not only has he published three novels (a fourth is in the works) that all look good, but he offers digital versions of a curated selection of novels from other small presses as well.
Perusing his more than 50 titles from independent publishers, I thought about those advertisements in Brave New World that appear on the wall tailored exactly to the tastes and desires of whoever was walking past at that minute. Here was a bookstore curated so that every novel offered was literary, not genre based, and thoughtful in some unusual way. Small presses abound: Tin House in Portland, Curbside Splendor in Chicago, our own local Red Hen Press — those places that can’t afford what it costs to get Amazon’s imprimatur — and 0s&1s makes their best work from predominantly new authors visible in a new way.
So much has been written about the Amazon/Hachette fight that it is unnecessary to add my two cents. In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the 900 authors who signed the open letter in The New York Times asking Amazon to stop punishing Hachette’s authors. I do not shop even for dish soap at Amazon. So it did my heart good to read this lovely first novel without Amazon (or my Nook) anywhere involved. The book is DRM-free (meaning you buy it and you own it and can share it if you want) and offered for download in three formats: pdf, mobi, and epub. The pdf was great. Better than my Nook, it gave me page numbers, I could highlight and save favorite passages (I write in my hardcopy books too), and returning to the novel after shutting down was as easy as using an old gas bill as a bookmark.
Buying a novel from 0s&1s is the difference between going to the farmer’s market and going to Walmart for your fruits and vegetables. I want to know where my strawberries come from and that the farmer isn’t getting screwed.
No special reader or program necessary — and each book is only six dollars. Andrew explained that out of the six dollars we pay, 80 percent of the profit goes to the publisher to allocate to the author as stipulated by their particular contract. Any book he chooses to publish through 0s&1s Novels also gives 80 percent of the profit to the author.
Is this the future of publishing, or one of the futures of publishing? Since Amazon is fighting with Hachette over a $9.99 price tag for its ebooks, which Hachette thinks is too low, I wanted to know more about Andrew’s business plan. So I emailed him. He gives great email.
DIANA WAGMAN: Where did you get the idea for 0s&1s Novels?
ANDREW LIPSTEIN: Earlier this year I wanted to publish the novel of a friend of mine, Victoria Hetherington. She had written something I thought was amazing, and I wanted the privilege of helping her bring it to the world. I then started to contact other small presses to see how they do things, especially on the digital side. Why do some decide to sell on Amazon? (The answer: there’s no better option.) What are the drawbacks? (The answer: small press books get virtually no exposure through Amazon and have to give up the same margins as big publishers — which can be as high as 30–50 percent.)
I’m also a big fan of publishers that push the boundaries for the industry — they produce work that sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails, but never in a formulaic way (like the big publishers sometimes did in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and even ’80s).
We’ve had some success with the titles we offer from What Books Press out of Los Angeles: Katharine Haake’s The Time Of Quarantine and Rod Val Moore’s Brittle Star. They’re both definitely “out-there” as well as the now ubiquitous descriptor: “genre-bending.” I love the concept behind What Books Press and am glad visitors to the site have found their books compelling enough to check out. Those titles are exemplary of what I like to sell: books that you may not find in front at Barnes & Noble, but ones that are gems in some way — personal, breathtaking experiences somewhat hidden from the mainstream reader.
The idea of highlighting these [kinds of] publishers, while providing an alternate option to Amazon, was very appealing.
Our bestsellers have only seen a handful of sales thus far. The problem of exposure is one we’re attacking from all angles. For example, we’re partnering with certain web magazines, like Electric Literature, to experiment in dual-promotional content, and rethinking what it means to sell the digital version of a book. Another example is a partnership that we’ve just instituted with three bookstores who we found through the American Booksellers Association: Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston), Book & Books (South Florida, Grand Cayman, Westhampton Beach), and Politics & Prose (DC). You can read more here: 0s-1s.com/bookstores. In exchange for exposure, they’re getting a portion of the profits they help create. The bottom line of finding success in a business like ours is that the exchange of money for a weightless digital novel (a data transfer) is a mind-blowingly abstract problem to consider, wonderfully abstract in fact, and that’s where the fun is: to see what sticks and what doesn’t, what makes someone willing to pay six dollars for one of the purest and most traditional experiences of human culture, with no physical goods changing hands.
What were you doing when you came up with the idea?
Before 0s&1s I worked in Creative Direction and Business Development at a digital design agency. I started 0s&1s while I was there and the workload was too much to do both. It was the choice between a passion and a paycheck and I hope I never make the other decision.
When did you decide to sell the books as well?
The bookstore became a part of it early in the process. After doing enough research into the technology available, I found that buying and selling an ebook is possibly the easiest transaction today — it’s an exchange of data for money. I can sell a book to someone in Greece just as easily as I can someone in New York.
By talking to other publishers, especially those at O/R books, I also got insight into something called DRM, Digital Rights Management. Basically, an ebook is encrypted, or has DRM added to it, to prevent readers from sharing and pirating books. This is, of course, necessary. But DRM is incredibly easy to strip, it doesn’t serve to prevent piracy at all. So, while on the surface it’s a good thing, in reality it handicaps publishers, who don’t think they can do it themselves. So it becomes another reason they feel handcuffed to Amazon.
There are a few publishers and retailers experimenting with DRM-free books, like O/R (as I mentioned), as well as Tor, and the retailer Emily Books. I believe we’re in a disequilibrium state, with DRM as an exception and DRM-free as the new equilibrium.
I also think that in a few years the market will be recalibrated, we won’t use DRM, and this will be another blow to Amazon’s model.
The July 2014 Author Earnings Report also came to the conclusion that DRM-free books earn more revenue. The article is definitely worth checking out here.
How do you choose titles and presses for the bookstore?
First we choose the publishing houses. This is based on awards, critical acclaim, and past publications. The type of fiction we’re most attracted to is unconventional fiction that retains the entertainment factor. A lot of “experimental” fiction, I think, loses readers by alienating them. The books we sell are challenging but are also capable of making you miss your train stop.
We’re thrilled with our list so far and can’t wait to see what it looks like in three months, six months, one year. Just recently we’ve been able to sign such presses as Tin House, Verso, Black Balloon, and Dzanc.
After we come to terms with a publishing house, we usually suggest a few of their titles we think would fit in with, and expand, our selection. However, we always leave the final call of what we’ll publish up to them.
And my final question: Why the uniform price? That seems to be one of the sticking points in the Hachette case.
Part of the $6 price has to do with the market equilibrium, and part of it has to do with what we think the market equilibrium should be. Mostly all of the books we sell are also available on Amazon — but for more. This is because 80 percent of profits go to the publisher; a press could sell the same book they’re selling on Amazon for $9 on 0s&1s (for $6) and retain a higher profit per sale. So we can go low(er) and still give more to the publisher. But we don’t want to go lower than $6, because at a fundamental level we believe that’s the lowest amount a book should be worth. In most cases, this is three, four, five, 10 hours of a one-of-a-kind experience. You wouldn’t want to go to an eight-hour-long movie, but if you could rent one, and watch it at odd moments in the day, you’d expect to pay a lot more than $6 for it.
Now, as far as the uniformity of the price, I really want a visitor to the site to know that if they want a book, no matter what book it is, it’s going to be the same price. I don’t want price to play any role in the decision-making process. You don’t go to the movies and say, well The Lego Movie is $12, but Lucy is $8, so maybe we should see that and save four dollars. There’s the undeniable fact that price signifies quality and, as cliché or political as this sounds, we don’t feel comfortable denoting a difference in quality between any two books we sell. Someone might find Saramago’s The Lives of Things to be a terrific, and Kinsella’s Let Go and Go On and On to not be a worthy read, and someone else might think the opposite (heck, that same person might have the opposite opinion later on). So we’re happy saying to the reader: Come read here. You know what you’ll pay for each book. Get two for 12 dollars and pay less than you would for a pizza. You’ll be happier and have less gas.