by Lorie Lewis Ham
As I was planning our Earth Day issue, and planning to focus again this year on ebooks, it seemed a perfect time to interview Jay Hartman. Jay is one of the founders of Untreed Reads, a company that focuses primarily on ebooks, and even in their print division uses print on demand because it is more Earth friendly.
KRL: Name and position with the company?
Jay: Jay Hartman, Editor-in-Chief.
KRL: How, when and why did Untreed Reads come to be?
Jay: I had been involved with ebooks for more than 15 years, primarily in a “reporting on the industry” position. Eventually, I realized that there were lots of genres and subjects that I liked to read that I wasn’t seeing represented in the ebook market. At a birthday party for a mutual friend, I happened to meet K.D. Sullivan. K.D. is a multi-published author through Barron’s and McGraw-Hill and had recently sold her editorial and proofreading business and was looking at getting into something new. We had ourselves a good conversation, and by November 2010, we had formed our company, with our first title released in February of 2011 (Anne Brooke’s How to Eat Fruit).
KRL: For those who aren’t familiar–what exactly is Untreed and what all do you do?
Jay: Untreed Reads is a digital-first publisher. This means we tend to publish in ebook formats first, then potentially a print-on-demand version later. We work just like traditional publishers in that we accept submissions, review to decide what we want to publish, incur the production costs, promote and pay royalties. We have another side of the business that focuses on services for other publishers and self-published authors that includes conversion, editing and worldwide distribution.
KRL: Can you share a little of your background?
Jay: As I mentioned previously, I’ve been in the ebook world for a little more than 15 years. I was the Content Editor for KnowBetter.com, one of the first websites that dealt with the ebook industry, for which I did reviews, promotions, interviews, etc.. We also did a lot of market research that was eventually used by places such as Random House and Simon and Schuster to setup their ebook divisions. I don’t mean it to sound like bragging, but there are very few people out there in the ebook world today that have been an active part of it for as long as I have. I still travel and present on ebook and publishing related topics around the US.
KRL: You are very knowledgeable when it comes to ebooks–how has this helped Untreed succeed and stay ahead of the curve in this industry?
Jay: The good thing is that in addition to ebooks, I have a degree in literature and 25+ years of retail experience. As a result, I have a tendency to predict trends early on before they hit big. We were publishing stand-alone short stories long before anyone else was and we’re still one of the only independent publishers with a strong focus on growing business with libraries. From my retail days, I understood the necessity for worldwide distribution, which is why we’ve focused so much of our efforts on bringing our titles to as many retail channels as possible and are always adding more. I’m pretty much a complete geek, so if I can figure out some new cool and techie thing to do with ebooks and publishing I’m never afraid to try it out. But I think a bigger advantage is the fact that I’ve been in the industry for so long. The majority of the other publishers trying to climb aboard the ebook bandwagon are trying to figure out how to make it all work in a market that’s forever changing. Luckily, I’ve been around long enough to see what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t, I’m in touch with agents and other publishers to see what they’re looking at and we’re a company that’s just the right size to change direction midstream if we feel a new trend or market necessity is about to take off.
KRL: What are some things regarding ebooks that you see coming in the future?
Jay: I think as the tablet device market, such as the iPad or Kindle Fire or Nexus, continue to grow we’re going to see a lot less of the dedicated ebook reading device. There’s a precedent for that happening in the past when the Rocket eBook reader went away and now Sony has folded their ebook division. People don’t want to carry around multiple devices, so I think tablets are going to rapidly become the go-to option. Also, as cell phones continue to get larger and enter the “phablet” category, these will also become more popular for reading. I imagine you’ll eventually see Amazon phase out their basic Kindles to focus their efforts on Kindle Fires.
Libraries are still the main, largely untapped market. Print has become too expensive for most libraries who see their budgets consistently shrunk year-to-year. As patrons become more tech savvy and ebook pricing remains affordable, libraries will see their dollars go much further by focusing on making ebooks available to their patrons.
KRL: Do you think this industry is going to continue to grow?
Jay: It’s a tough call, and it really depends on which survey you read on any given day. Ebooks still only make up about 30% of the book market and some of the huge gains that appeared in previous years have dramatically slowed down. Part of the problem is consolidation in the industry as lots of ebook publishers close their doors and retailers such as Sony get out of the game.
Also, the market is simply glutted with material right now thanks to the advent of self-publishing and the ability for readers to find quality titles in a vast ocean of product is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. So many readers are shying away from ebooks because they’re growing weary of consistently encountering poorly edited/written content.
Lastly, the technology of ebooks is reaching a plateau. Although new things are happening with the devices on which we read ebooks, there hasn’t been a whole lot of improvement in the ebook technology itself. Unless we start seeing some real innovation in formats and capabilities, it’ll be harder for the ebook industry to reach any new, dazzling heights.
KRL: I see you also do some print books–do you primarily though do ebooks?
Jay: We do ebooks primarily, but we also recognize the fact that readers want to have multiple options for the way in which they consume their books. I always compare it to a diabetic going to Baskin-Robbins. If you’re a diabetic (like myself), you’re confronted at Baskin-Robbins with tons of great flavors…except in sugar-free where your options are usually vanilla and some sort of other oddity that you wouldn’t consume. Why should an ice cream shop only offer one flavor as an option for a customer, or a publisher determine how their customer is allowed to read? So we began introducing print-on-demand for some of our titles as well as audiobooks. It was important for us to maintain our “untreed” identity, which is why we went with print-on-demand. No huge print runs means books are only created as people request them, and we partnered with Ingram who not only has the best distribution in the business but who also consistently maintains higher environmental standards for their production.
KRL: Why do you feel that ebooks are important?
Jay: Ebooks can open up worlds for many people who may otherwise be left out of the regular book experience. A sight-impaired person can change the font size of the print on a reading device or choose to have the book read out-loud to them. An autistic child can engage with an enhanced ebook in a way that gives them comfort but expands their experience. A student can carry around twenty textbooks in their backpack and only have it weigh a pound or two. Shut-ins can have access to material without leaving their home and can have it immediately. My doctor was able to look up drug interactions on her iPad recently when I went in for an appointment.
Beyond that, it also means that no book ever really has to go “out of print” again. One of the reasons why the Library of Congress was established was to preserve our literary heritage. In the new world of technology, that entire library could be stored on a series of computers for access by multiple generations to come. Nobody ever has to wish they could get their hands on a copy of a title that disappeared from shelves fifty or sixty years ago.
Also, ebooks level the field between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” You no longer have to have a college degree to access a lot of reading materials, or be part of an exclusive club or specific career set. Ebooks are so widely available that anyone with any interest in any topic can indulge themselves completely.
KRL: Why do you feel a company like Untreed is important?
Jay: I think we represent a few things. I think we help set the pace for the industry by identifying trends and launching new takes on old genres. I think our work in preserving out-of-print works is vital to authors remaining in the public eye. I think our consistent education that we provide to readers, authors and other publishers helps to ensure that everyone gets a chance to survive in the ever-changing publishing world. And in a world of self-publishing where the quality of content is often very much a roller coaster from horrible depths to fantastic highs there is still a need for gatekeepers who understand the industry and what quality should look like to help the readers of the world determine where they will get the most bang for their spending buck.
KRL: Why don’t you tell us about your podcasts.
Jay: We run a few different types of podcasts. Some are interviews with our authors, some are about our new releases and some are just informational about things that are happening in the industry. We’ve been running a bit behind on releasing new podcasts due to a lot of other things going on, but we hope to get back up to normal release times on those shortly. The podcasts are available through iTunes, Slacker Radio and on our website.
KRL: What are you future goals for the company?
Jay: We want to continue to find new and original revenue streams. We’re heavily focused on libraries and subscription models right now, and we are also building proprietary software for our operations that will do everything from royalty tracking to managing the ebook production process from start to finish. It’s not an application that currently exists in the world today, so we’re very excited to see where that takes us. Overall, we just want to continue bringing great content to readers and highlighting amazing authors.
KRL: What is the process for a writer or publisher to see their ebooks and/or estories on Untreed?
Jay: At the moment, we are closed to submissions unless 1) the author is agent-represented or 2) they are a current UR author or 3) they have a title where the publisher recently went under. However, we do a lot of anthologies and post several calls throughout the year on our Submissions page at wwww.untreedreads.com.
We’re always happy to help publishers and self-published authors use our distribution services to get their books out to the world or to help with things such as conversions. Folks who are interested in this can contact us at services@untreedreads[dot]com .
KRL: What do you like best about what you do?
Jay: I love my authors. Seriously, there’s nothing better than the conversations I have with them either via email or over the phone. They are very much my family, and the fact that they trust me with their “children” is so incredibly gratifying and scary at the same time.
I also love discovering new authors who haven’t been able to have a voice before, and then watch them blossom. I discovered J.D.Netto at BookExpoAmerica last year, where he was a self-published author with a tiny booth and now he’s one of our authors with a HUGE book release that’s happening at this year’s BEA. Trey Dowell started with us with short stories and just signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for a full-length. Kaye George is nominated for an Agatha Award this year for Death in the Time of Ice. Whether it’s through us or another publisher, watching authors publish their first story with us and then go on to develop their fan bases and name recognition is incredibly rewarding.
KRL: What has been the hardest?
Jay: Rejecting manuscripts. It’s like telling someone their kid is too ugly to play with the other kids on the jungle gym. Definitely not the happiest part of the job.
Also, watching my authors deal with tragedy in their personal lives is horrible. A number of our authors have had to deal with severe personal injury or the death of a loved one and recently one of my authors has made the decision that they are no longer in good enough health to continue their writing career. It’s absolutely heartbreaking, because I do genuinely care about my authors so much. They’re not just names on a screen to me, so when they have tough times I wish I could be there to comfort them.
The other hard thing is not having met or even spoken to the majority of my authors. They’re spread out all over the world and they’re all so amazing. I only wish I had the opportunity to meet every one of them.
KRL: Anything else you would like to share?
Jay: Nobody has a success in a vacuum, and Untreed Reads is no exception. I’m eternally grateful to the readers who have supported us and our authors along the way, and am so appreciative of the proofreaders, cover designers, conversion and posting team and all the other folks that are the unsung heroes behind-the-scenes at Untreed Reads. The fact that we’re still here, alive and kicking is a testament to the talent of our amazing authors and the enormous support of our readers. Thanks for letting our titles into your world!
Check out more Going Green articles in this special Earth Day issue, and past ones in our Going Green section.