“The essential job of a publishing house is curation”: Jacob Stevens on Verso Books

(update: I correct some typos -Rx 17 April 2015)

One of the great things about running a well-established blog is that you can just cold-call interesting people and ask to interview them, and they’ll say yes.  Verso Books has had a long history of publishing works which have has a tremendous impact in anthropologyand so I’d always tried to stay up to date with what the press was doing. When it began selling ebooks directly through its website and offering them at discounted prices through sales, I got curious about what their plan want to keep their independent, progressive press operating in an era of Reduced Everything. I was very lucky, therefore, to have a chance to speak to the managing director of Verso, Jacob Stevens, who talked with me about Verso’s plans and future directions.

I came away from this interview tremendously impressed with Stevens and Verso more generally. Stevens’s strategic vision is remarkably clear and focused on what the key commitments of progressive publishing should be. At the same time, he’s thought outside the box in many ways — looking to journal subscriptions as a model for direct sales of monographs, or taking the lessons of the music industry and applying them to publishing. I think you’ll really enjoy this interview and the light it sheds on Verso’s plans for the future, and the state of independent publishing today.

AG: Let’s start by talking about your Christmas sale. That seemed to be a pretty major statement by Verso. The discounts were incredibly steep and the selection was very good. Could you tell why you decided to do that sale, how successful it was, and its role in your publishing strategy?

JS: We initiated a redesign of the website in 2008, always with the aim of launching a strong direct sales channel. That finally came about in March last year, and we took three decisions to try and make sure that it was a success and that it was noticed. The first one was to bundle ebooks with print. The second one was to offer discounts, and the third was to offer free shipping. Essentially, we were competing with Amazon.

What we decided to try right from the get-go was a big overall sale, to get people excited about it. And it worked extremely well. That was in the end of March and early April, 2014. And sales then dropped to a steady level, good and healthy but not nearly as high as our big initial sale. So we’re learning as we go along and we’ve decided that those headline discounts really work, they really get new people coming, we can now see whether it’s new visitors, or repeating ones, and a big sale where you allow people to choose across the whole list seems to be the most effective thing.

So we’ve just got to decide now how often and when we can do that. We want it to continue to work, but we don’t want it to put people off from buying at other times. And so the end-of-year sale was the next really big one that we really tried. We initially began with the same terms, which was a 50 percent sale, but then in the last week we also did a steeply discounted ebooks sale.

Again, mainly with the aim of bringing in new readers. There was a feeling that with selling our own ebooks that there is a bit of a hurdle for people to get over, if they’re used to Amazon or Apple’s way of delivering ebooks.  We needed to make it attractive, show people that the process they works fine, show that it’s easy, and then we can continue selling to those people, and they’ll become readers who are happy to buy from the website.

So it was a great success. Our direct sales were a little more than we expected in the first year. It reached, within a year, 16 percent of our global revenue which is basically three quarters of a million dollars.

AG: Many university presses that are trying to innovate in this space have difficulty because they don’t have much of a cushion if they fail. What was the broader―

JS: I would flip that on its head. They all, to differing extents and in different ways, have subsidies from the universities. Their cost structure might be different, their margins might be different, they may be choosing to publish in different ways, but they do, as a matter of fact, have a cushion, which a company like Verso doesn’t have.

AG: So in that case, was this a situation where you felt you had to make this move, given where you were financially, or was this something that you felt like you wanted to do because of the long term?

JS: I became the managing director of Verso in 2008. And the aim was always going to be to not go bust, to grow at what seems to be a sustainable rate, to make a bit of profit and be able to invest it back in the company. So all the things that I’m doing here are ways to do that.

We weren’t in particularly dire financial straits, but at the point where I took over Verso we had that financial crash and then we had a massive shakeout in the book industry. So, I was very aware of the difficulties of the industry as a whole, and I watched a number of very good publishing houses who I respected have to lay people off or go through a hard time one way or another. I realized we needed to be in a robust enough position to deal with events like Borders going under. Would we be OK? What would we do in a situation where Barnes & Nobles goes under, or Amazon decides to disable our ‘buy’ button, right? Or there’s some other kind of shakeout?

So the aim there is to try to make a bit of money so that you’ve got a bit of a cushion, but secondly try and make sure you’ve got enough diverse sources of revenue. So as we watch the percentage of our sales coming from Amazon creep up from 15 to 20 to 30 to 40%, we need to broaden our sources of sales. It’s not rocket science: The only available move is to augment the trade sales with direct sales, and build a base of people who are buying from you directly.

And if you’re coming from a journal model, from a subscription model, again, that’s obvious. Journals know who their subscribers are, they know where they are, they know how much they’re paying, they know what their contact details are, they might have their credit card details ― and that’s valuable. Book publishers traditionally don’t have any of that, apart from the handful that have made a success from direct sales. And so we tried to look at who had made a success, and how it worked, and what the strengths were, the website and their social media, and to make it happen.

AG: And so who were some of those people?

JS: Mainly journals. Since then, there’s a couple I’ve come to know better. The obvious one is OR Books, which was founded by Colin Robinson and John Oakes, which you may know of, who do purely direct sales.

AG: Yeah, I think I’ve purchased a book from them before. Jihadi’s Return, I think.

JS: Colin used to work with us so we followed the founding of that company and what it’s aim was, which was essentially an Amazon workaround tout court, and a trade workaround. totally digitally published and totally directly sold. There are publishers like Haymarket who are obviously political publishers, they have a lot more direct contact with their readers through their presence at all kinds of events and conferences. They also have a direct sales component.

One of the ones that we watched from right at the beginning was Melville House, who grew out of a newsletter and always had the online component and, you know, they were mailing books out of their office but had a good direct sales presence from the beginning too. That was part of the deal when they moved to Random House, was, “We have this operation; this is part of what we do.”

AG: So, what is the future for the ecosystem of independent publishers? You obviously don’t want to be locked into a situation where Amazon is always standing between you and your readers. But what is it that you would like to see in the future? Is it constant social media outreach? Every time somebody wants to buy a book they have to go to the publisher to find it and buy it?

JS: I think the thing that we learned from these sales is that people were happy to have alternatives to the big online retailers. When they realize that they can deal directly with us and not through a big retailer, they were happy to do that. Because I think that, in both the U.K. the U.S., people are keen and happy to support an independent publishing house ― and relieved to. And if you make it really easy by offering a bundled ebook that they wouldn’t have got, and the same terms in terms of discounts and shipping, then people are going to do that in large numbers.

I don’t know how that’s going to go. I would hope that we are going to see a growing percentage of our sales done directly, but I would also hope that’s not going to mean any fewer sales out there in the trades. There’s always going to be a role for the bookstores and for the online retailers. People are going to come find us in different ways.

Now, our social media, is obviously going to be different from Amazon’s or Penguin Random House, because we’ve got a political and intellectual mission, and we can also have a lot more fun with it. Our Twitter following is based on the fact that we’re not just talking about our books, we’re not just selling them; we’re talking about current events, we’re talking about other people’s books, and articles, and anything we think that is going on that’s interesting. And, you know, that’s something Amazon won’t be able to do.

In terms of how we get new readers, obviously Facebook and Twitter are going to continue to be crucial to that. One of the other things that is part our road map, is that we don’t yet have the full content of all of our books available for access and search. And that’s always been an aim of mine. And I think that once we get to that point, where the full content of Verso’s list is being indexed by Google and others, then we’ll get a lot more people coming over to our site organically, because they’re searching for things, and from there they can buy the books.

AG: It seems like so much of what I use Amazon for is discovery, awareness, filtering, locating contents I want to purchase ― but not necessarily purchasing it. Is social media going to be able to fulfill that same quality of curation that Amazon’s algorithms are doing in the background?

JS: It’s all curation. The essential job of a publishing house is curation. Look at our Twitter feed: We’re calling out not just our authors and our books and what they’re currently up to, but also those of our comrades and one might say competitors, and if something interesting or good has just happened, or Haymarket, or one of our authors published a book elsewhere, we’re calling that out. And so then it becomes a kind of selected curation. Or a curation of like-minded publishing houses and writers.

AG: You really don’t see a role for sort of a portal of independent publishers where people can come search for your books. You just see social media as the main way to connect with readers like that.

JS: One would need to work out what that means. The kind of Yahoo! version of that didn’t work. There are elements of the direct sales model that Verso has built, that I think could be used by other publishers. And in fact we’re exploring at the moment licensing some of the code of our website, you know, the user interface, the way that we’re bundling ebooks, the way that we’re watermarking our ebooks ― we’re looking at licensing that to one or two other independent publishing houses, so that they can try the same model. So that’s not a portal, but it is a sharing of technology, a sharing of ways that independent publishers can work.

AG: I ask because open access publishers like ANU Epress and others have the directory of open access books, and they are creating these centralized locations. So it’s interesting and noteworthy that that’s not the way that Verso and other independent publishers have decided to go.

JS: I mean, you’ve got to go to where people are. So when I talk about the power that I think would come from putting all of our books digitally, in full, online, I’m looking at Google. I’m just looking at the fact that that’s where people are and where they’re looking for particular terms, for particular topics, that’s where they’re searching.

When we first built our website we built discussion forums for people to discuss our books. And that didn’t work at all because the place where people were discussing our books was Facebook and Twitter. And so we stripped out all that stuff because it wasn’t being used. And now what we do is engage with where people are doing this. I wouldn’t want to build a new portal if that would mean trying to badly reproduce anything that Facebook and Twitter and Google have nailed with now billions of dollars.

AG: Some presses are very worried about ebooks because they enable piracy, or they fear the circulation of .PDF’s, basically. But you folks have gone with no DRM as I understand it.

JS: We call it “social DRM,” which is a term that we took probably from the company that we’re licensing the technology from, Bookxtream, who watermark our ebooks so that if there is anyone who uploads these to file sharing sites, the file that will be shared has their name and e-mail address all over it.

AG: I saw that, I thought that was very cute.

JS: I think cute’s definitely a word that you could use. I mean their aim is to make clear that we’re not selling these books to people so that they can upload them and share them; we want the author to get their cut, we want to make sure that everybody who is involved in the production of the book is paid. We also need to be able to reassure authors and agents that we’re doing something to address those concerns.

But at the same time, I recognize that if you have legal and easy ways to allow people to buy digital content, they will buy it more often than they will try and pirate it. That’s what we learned from the music industry, and I think that’s what we learned from others who make it easy rather than difficult to download new things. So the great attraction, the great reason to do the watermarking that we did rather than try and impose  DRM, is that, if you get a download and put it on your machine and you can put it on any one of your readers and you don’t run into arcane DRM restrictions that trip you up.

AG: It’s quite personalized. Some of the big publishers in academic journals watermark articles with very generic codes that indicate your IP address and the date it was downloaded, whereas yours just has the person’s name there.

JS: We did a pretty straightforward implementation of the model that Booxtream had put in place, and we’re going to continue tweaking it. They’ve been good to work with, and I think that they’ve had other publishers reach out to them since we launched. And I think it’s a really good compromise between the interests of authors and agents and publishers and the readers who want to be able to read it on their device they’ve got.

The user we had in mind was someone who wanted to buy the book and start reading it. We can mail it to them, and it might take a few days ― they might be a student on a deadline, they might be an writer on a deadline, or they might just want to start reading it. And they’ve probably got more than one device, they’ve also got their laptop. And that’s an attractive thing. And any kind of DRM is gonna get in the way of that.

AG: Absolutely. These are the things that you hear people saying all of the time, who have thought about these issues, and yet for some reason this has been so rarely implemented.

JS: We had one lovely Tweet that said, “I like the way the publisher is bundling ebooks with print. This feels like the future.” And I thought, “Yes. Good.”

AG: Speaking of the opposite of the future, I seem to remember that the ebooks you have are all flowable text. Is there any sense that you might branch into .PDF’s, just so that academics can have page numbers? Or are those days just gone?

JS: I mean the mess with which page numbers and basic structural features were handled by Amazon and others is something that we’ve spent quite a while grappling with. I think .PDF’s have a set of their own problems, and I think that for most of the readers now ― bearing in mind that we don’t know the screen sizes ― it’s better to have flowable text. There is no reason, technically, why you can’t have page number tabs at exactly the same points that they are on the print edition, to allow proper academic citation.

You know, the ebooks standard had page number tabs from the get go. And yet, conversion houses and publishers and Amazon didn’t view this as important because they were basing it entirely on genre fiction, which was where the sales were initially. So when we started saying to conversion houses, you know, “We want page number tabs. We want them in the same place as the print edition,” we ran into resistance, we ran into increased conversion costs. Now we do that. I mean, if you download the ebook of anything from the last couple of years of ours, then you’ll find that 9 times out of 10 the page numbers are going to be in the same place as the print edition.

I wish that Amazon and Apple had taken more seriously the challenge of structurally complex books and what different types of page layout meant for the move to ebook. And I think that eventually we’ll catch up and solve those problems, but it’s still a bit of a free-for-all.

AG: Well, you know, as you’ve said, digitizing a book is not just a matter of scanning the pages and running OCR. As you start moving more of your back catalogue into this ebook format, is that something that’s going to cost a lot?

JS: Yeah. It’s something that I wanted to do back in 2007 and 2008. I’d already digitized the whole of the 40-year backlist of New Left Review, while I was there, and that was affordable. And it was clear where we were going to get the revenue from, and the universities would to pay for digital access to NLR’s Journal. When I moved to Verso, to the book publishing house, it was unclear where the revenue would come from for the big project of digitizing Verso’s 40-year backlist. And the ebook sales at that point were just too low. The conversion costs were relatively high, compared to where they are now, and the revenue was relatively low, because it was still a small percentage of the overall readership. So we’re getting closer and closer to the point where I think we can flip the switch and just say “We’re going to digitize the lot.” Because the costs of conversion are still dropping, now, in addition to the 10-15% of the trade who are reading digitally, we’ve also got a much bigger percentage of our online direct-sales audience who are reading digitally. So we can see where the revenue would come from. So we can see spending the tens of thousands that it would cost to go further back and digitize the rest of our books.

AG: Is there any chance that you’ll take a look at open accessing some of the classic content that you folks have?

JS: Yes, absolutely. And my hope would be to make as much of it available to everybody as possible. I think what we’re going to do is evaluate some kind of subscription model, initially, and then look at which things and what kind of access we can allow more broadly to everyone. We have to work out how to get that kind of balance right.

AG: Right, because the other side of publishing that I’ve noticed are subscription services like Scribd, Oyster, Kindle Unlimited.

JS: We signed up with Oyster and they have a set of our books. With those services, it’s sort of like the early days of the ebook and it’s still largely driven by fiction, especially genre fiction, and so the numbers of readers through that kind of thing for our kinds of books are still very low.

AG: So you see those as potential partners, you don’t see Verso offering $20 a month or whatever amount of money a month to read the Verso catalogue on your website.

JS: I think we could offer something complimentary. I think we’ve got a core readership which is reading many of our books. Whereas when we’re working with someone like Oyster, we’re dealing largely with people who are just going to hit on one or two of our trade titles. So I would think that we could offer a different subscription model to a different kind of reader, while still partnering quite happily with things like Oyster.

I mean I would say it’s crucial with Oyster that it’s not on the Spotify model. The Oyster model is when one of their readers reads a certain percentage of the book, they pay a discounted portion of the list price to the publisher. So it’s like someone bought that book. Which means that Oyster will work if they have enough subscribers, and they’re not reading so many books, they have to pay out too much to publishers. But it’s not like Spotify where there’s no minimum payment, essentially, and artists get fractions of a cent for their songs being played. The Oyster model is much friendlier to publishers like us that want to sign on.

AG: So, what is in the immediate future for you folks? Are there going to be more sales? Monthly sales? I see you’re giving away anthologies of contemporary writing through an e-mail list. What’s are your future directions?

JS: Well we’re experimenting massively, and possibly wildly, at the moment. We put together an end-of-year anthology that has the best writing we published the year before, at the end of last year, and that was a success. And again that’s not something that book publishers do. It was meant to be a move a little more like a journal, in that we were taking chapters and extracts and trying to give people a sense of the list as a whole. And we’re doing those kinds of sample readers now in different, slightly more focused areas, so we did one with our feminist radical thinker series, and we will be doing others of those. We are not going to do sales every month, but we will do sales in particular areas, so, you’re probably going to see sales around particular authors, or around particular areas that we’re publishing in. And we do expect to continue doing some bigger sales, but fewer. So no more than two or three a year of the bigger sales. Which will be seasonal, obviously.

And then, we’re doing a a tweak of the website layout and pages with the same fantastic designer, Andy Pressman (of Rumors), who did our initial website. And then the next big challenge is to get the full content of the books out and readable, browseable, on the site. So, sort of functionally like Amazon’s Look Inside the Book, except redesigned from the ground up so that it’s part of our website, so that it presents the pages in a way that we think works, and allows people to do things like check references and check quotes and read into the book that they’re interested in buying.

AG: You don’t worry that that’s going to eat into sales?

JS: No. I’m 95% certain that it’s going to increase them

AG: Right.

JS: But we will have to look at exactly where and how the pay wall will operate. It will be more flexible and have more access than Amazon’s Look Inside the Book or the Google Book equivalent, which block out arbitrary sets of pages. My feeling is that it would work a bit more like the New York Times’s paywall, where when people have come in with a directed search of some kind, you allow them access to what they’re looking for, and then you bring down the paywall to say “now you can buy to get the rest.”

AG: That’s a lot of backend for an independent publisher. You talked about working with Book Stream and other partners, but it sounds like a major part of Verso’s effort is expanding into areas that are not books. The kind of thing that readers benefit from, but they don’t see that hard work that goes into making that functionality.

JS: And it’s only possible to the extent that we can pay for these kinds of developments from our current sales. We’re not borrowing money, we have no external support. Development is expensive. Good developers aren’t cheap, good designers aren’t cheap. What I’ve been doing for seven years now, is that you break it down into small bits. And we do it bit by bit. I would’ve happily built the direct sales component in 2008. But it had to wait until we were able to do it in the right way and to roll it out stage by stage.

AG: And it requires a sense of the long term. Perhaps corporate publishers don’t have the ability to keep their eye on the ball over the long period in that way.

JS: Anyone who’s answerable to shareholders, especially if they’re publicly listed, is going to have a shorter-term focus. Verso is lucky to be a private company which is owned and set up by people who have in mind the health of their political and intellectual project, rather than yearly dividends. So we’ve always been able to re-invest and don’t have the same financial constraints of a major publishing house or anyone owned by a conglomerate.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on ““The essential job of a publishing house is curation”: Jacob Stevens on Verso Books

  1. Very nice interview Rex. I’m more familiar with the discussions among university presses over these issues. Jacob is correct that many UPs do receive subsidies from their host institutions, although this often comes with quite a few strings attached and the need to consider provosts and other stakeholders when making strategic decisions. And I can tell you from my experience at Cultural Anthropology, there are distinct advantages and disadvantages to being a publishing unit with a larger organization. While it is really interesting to hear about Verso’s approach to the current publishing environment, which I hope serves them well, these strategies aren’t necessarily available to all types of scholarly publishers.

    For more background on the need for scholarly publishers to develop direct-to-consumer (D2C) marketing strategies, I recommend some of Joseph Esposito’s recent posts on The Scholarly Kitchen, that are looking at D2C strategies for UPs.

  2. This was a really cool look behind the scenes into how the scholarly publication sausage is made. And another important lesson: even Leftists need business plans.

  3. Tim, yes I think you’re right. One of the key things I took away from the interview was that Verso has a strong project that a lot of people are very involved in. The strength of that shared progressive project, and the size of the people involved in it, is just of a different order of magnitude than specialized scholarly work.

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