Night Shade Books' Jeremy Lassen on the Future of Book-Buying

Night Shade Books is a small press that's quickly getting bigger. Known for edgy novels, they've also published heavy-hitters like Iain M. Banks. And editor-in-chief Jeremy Lassen thinks his press fits perfectly into a future of videogames and online bookstores.

I sat down with Lassen a few weeks ago in a Montreal coffee shop during Worldcon to talk about the future of publishing.

io9: Do you think e-books are the future of science fiction publishing?

JL: The distribution mechanism for books has been broken for a long time. Books on the midlist have gone from selling 200 thousand copies 20 thousand because the distribution network doesn't get them in front of people's eyes. There is no distribution outside bookstores.

So I think ebooks are the natural successor to disposable mass market paperbacks. Mass market paperbacks are just not cost effective today. It used to be that you'd go to a grocery store and there would be an aisle of mass market paperbacks. That aisle is now cheap DVDs. Publishers just don't have access to the mass market.

What e-books share with the mass market paperback is cheapness - and their sense of intangiblity is similar to mass market paperback. What I mean is that you don't make an attachment to it as a physical object. Some people do horde mass market paperbacks, but most see them as ephemeral.

I think the mass market is going to flip on a generational basis. Everybody I talk to says "I love paper and the feel of it." I get that, but it's a generational thing. My brother consumes all his media on his computer screen on his mobile. That's where he consumes his media. He doesn't watch movies or TV either - he downloads stuff. Makes sense that he'd consume books the same way.

Night Shade Books' Jeremy Lassen on the Future of Book-Buying

So how do we solve the distribution problem with e-books?

You need to grow the market for fiction by getting e-books in front of people who don't normally see books. When a kid buys Bioshock 2 on Amazon, then Amazon puts in link to Tor's new Bioshock book by John Shirley. You could see this happening in the context of movies or other pop culture stuff, too. You say find me a zombie movie, and Amazon comes back with a recommendation for some, plus here's some zombie fiction too. There are so many opportunities with the internet because you're not limited by category. You get people consuming videos or comics or movies to find novels that they would find interesting too. Which they don't find now because they're in bookstores, also known as "that store I don't go into."

Bookstores are confusing to people – they don't get the idea of authors, because movies are filed by title. Bookstores are intimidating. Amazon is great because they can buy books they know they want. You want to replicate that browsing experience in other environments, get people to stumble on the book they didn't know they wanted. There's a kid out there who didn't know there was a Bioshock novel by John Shirley and now he does.

That's where I see that recommendation engine being valuable – if it's only books leading to recommendations of other books that's reinventing the wheel. To be revolutionary, you need these books to reach a wider audience – the people who go to Amazon to buy a videogame and find a book.

Does that mean books will be just tie-ins to other franchises like videogames?

Not at all. Look at it this way. At the turn of the century [British horror writer] William Hope Hodgson made bank on magazine publishing. But he made no money on books. Back then, magazine editors were like the gatekeepers of pop culture. Now, novels are what get noticed by current gate keepers of pop culture, which are movie studios. They are buying up books right and left. It's the same as last century: books are what you use to get the attention of the gatekeepers. Books are still a profitable niche market.

Night Shade Books' Jeremy Lassen on the Future of Book-Buying

How did Night Shade get started?

My business partner Jason Williams started it in 1997. We were always from the get-go wanting to be a trade publisher. We didn't want to do the Subterranean Press thing with special editions. We didn't want to be collected - we wanted to be read. We are book collectors ourselves but there's an understanding that as excited as people might be by your fetish object bound in goatskin and signed in blood, those get put on a shelf and never read. Only about 20 people read it.

We got a wholesale contract due to good reviews early. [Distributors] Baker and Taylor came to us and gave us a good contract. Then we got Ingram. At that point we were one sale away from every bookstore in the country. It's been a seemingly endless trek. And then Iain M. Banks divorced his publisher Simon and Schuster, and in 2006 [with his novel The Algebraist] he said, "Yeah we're going to go with these weirdos in San Francisco."

With the Banks book, we chatted with our buyer at Borders, and he said look, why don't you work with a distributor we use all the time. So he told Diamond to give us a distribution contract. They delivered – we got the Banks novel into the chains in a big way. After that, the buyers at the chains knew who Night Shade was. And now we're doing 36 books a year. Last year we got into mass market paperbacks in a big way. We think we can be a one-stop shop: trade, mass market, and hardback. Start in one format and go into another. Plus, different kinds of books require different things. Putting urban fantasy in trade paperback hobbles it – those readers buy in mass market paperbacks. Most of them don't even look at it unless it's in trade paperback. Being able to do that was a big step.

What about the e-book formats we talked about earlier?

I doubt that electronic-only will be viable for the kind of trade publishing I want to do in the next 10 years. Paper and electronic will be the standard. My view is e-books will replace mass market. So one book might be one, then become another. Authors are unwilling to give up print rights in perpetuity. I structure contracts like this: If the book is in print, if I have X number of copies in inventory, then I still have rights. So if it goes out of print, we also lose e-rights. But if something is selling massively electronically, then we'd keep it in print too.

The publishing industry is so slow, but still it went in a 5 year period from "What is an e-book?" to "We won't buy a book unless we have ebook rights." That says the money streams aren't mature right now, but publishers are seeing these rights as being very important.

Night Shade Books' Jeremy Lassen on the Future of Book-Buying

How do you think people will read e-books? Kindles?

I don't think dedicated e-book readers [like the Kindle] will work. The Kindle takes all the wrong lessons from the iPod. When people want to apply lessons of digital music to e-books they aren't very smart. People desperately demanded e-music. Nobody is demanding e-books. People aren't jumping up and down to spend 400 bucks on a device to hold books. Sure there's always a niche market, but that's not enough. The Sony e-book reader? Talk about a fucking dead end. That's just not a mass market device.

Here's my wet dream e-book partner: Nintendo DSi online store. Package me up some titles and put 'em for sale on the Nintendo Store. The audience is already consuming scifi and they don't go into bookstores. Put my books for sale there and I'll be happy as a pig in shit. That's my example of going out and getting my books in front of people who wouldn't normally see them.

And that's on a generic device – not an e-book reader. These kids are already buying these devices. That's where I see future of e-books going.

Check out the latest titles from Night Shade Books.