For this concluding post of The Robot Watcher, I will take a brief recap of the various topics and subjects that I have discussed since the beginning and leave you all with my final thoughts and predictions.
As I stated in my Introduction post, I was initially intrigued by Angry Robot’s recently-expanded Clonefiles Project, a print/digital initiative that enables customers who purchase an Angry Robot paperback at a participating independent bookstore to download a digital copy of that novel for free. Not only was a small publisher using print, digital, and indie bookstores to cross-promote each other, but Clonefiles launched a full year before Amazon’s widely-publicized Matchbook program. After coming across a publisher that was this risky, creative, and innovative, I couldn’t consider any other press.
Predictably, my very first topic was Clonefiles. I traced the history of this project, which began with an experiment in the summer of 2012 (with only one bookstore participating) and expanded with several more participants in early September 2013. Seeing as one of the more intriguing aspects of the bundling project was its inclusion of independent bookstores, I devoted a post to this topic and wrapped it up with an overall view of the state of print/digital bundling in the industry.
To summarize, I concluded that Clonefiles represented the publishing industry’s closest equivalent to the home video industry’s popular (with consumers) bundling model (where a free digital copy is included with the physical copy), with the added bonus that the digital copy is DRM-free. The inclusion of independent bookstores into the initiative appears to be a personal statement from AR about their concern for the survival of indie shops in an increasingly digital world. In their mission statement, AR claims that they “are fans” on the same level as their readers, an attitude which seems to inform their creation of a program that offers such value and freedom for their customers. Even with such a limited scope (when compared to Matchbook), Clonefiles proved to be highly profitable during its trail run, which indicates that fan-appreciation can be a good business strategy.
The “We are Fans” ethos has also inspired their strong anti-DRM stance. I took a brief look at anti-DRM practices in the industry before discussing AR’s own reasons for publishing their e-books free of DRM. In order to maintain the level of sincerity that has endeared AR to so many genre readers, AR does not want to adopt any practice which they see as anti-reader. While AR is forced to use DRM in order to sell their e-books on Amazon, the Nook Book Store, and other DRM-laden platforms, they freely advertize their stance on the AR-owned The Robot Trading Company (which, subsequently, gets the most promotion out of AR’s social media efforts). In a similar spirit of openness, AR partnered with mobile developer Boosh to enable sharing of select e-books on mobile devices, which further illustrates how often AR goes against-the-grain in favor of their readers.
“We are Fans” also describes the ways in which AR communicates with readers and markets their products. The publisher’s biggest fan initiative, The Robot Army, organizes and supports a street team that has great access to digital advanced reader copies of AR novels. AR also communicates with fans on social media in a very casual and welcoming manner, approaching their readers with a tone that is down-to-earth, tongue-in-cheek, and free of any pomposity. I spent my last few posts reflecting on AR’s output as a publisher, showing how this tone has been reflected through their imprints, quality book covers, and the novels themselves.
As mentioned in those posts, AR’s earnest attitude and business model have proved highly effective in engendering devoted readers and a following that is unusual for any trade publisher. For such a small press (they will have only published 27 novels in the entirety of 2013) with a rather niche catalog, I would consider this to be highly successful and even preferable to bigger kinds of success. If AR suddenly attempted a huge expansion in order to compete with some of the larger presses, the casual attitude and ideology-driven business practices would likely be the first things to go. I would compare AR to a beloved independent bookstore, one which would loose all of its charm and appeal if it were to attempt a nation-wide expansion. In short, I think AR simply needs to keep doing what they’re doing lest they betray what has actually made them successful int he first place. If AR wants to grow in the future, they simply need to grab even more budding talent that will bring added prestige to their catalog.
In maintaining their small but mighty stature, AR can still remain an important contrarian voice in the publishing landscape. With Amazon encroaching on the profits of big-box bookstores and setting the standard for many of the industry’s digital practices, independent bookstores are actually on the rise. In such a landscape, the independent framework is the best way to implement policies that go against Amazon’s example and prove with sales numbers that these alternatives are viable business solutions. While the majority of readers might ultimately side with Amazon over the indies, dissenting voices are important for any healthy business environment.
As long as Angry Robot does not “sell out” and decide that they are no longer fans, they should continue to flourish and further cement their reputation as one of the most meaningful reader-friendly publishers in the industry. If anything, free and open products will become even more desirable if Amazon does not ease up on their restrictions and inches even closer towards industry-wide monopoly. And if the anti-DRM/Amazon voices win and the dream of a free and open digital landscape becomes a reality, Angry Robot can always claim (with complete accuracy) that they were there first.
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