Interview with Andrew Lipstein
0s&1s is a digital publishing house and bookstore focused on independent literary ebooks and magazines. They also feature a trio of conversation features (check out this one between Laura van den Berg and Karen Olsson) The fight 0s&1s has taken to Amazon has garnered attention from The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, and Mashable, as well as venues closer to home, like Poets & Writers (did you see their takeover of the RP Instagram account, btw?) and Publishers Weekly. Their hard work is paying off. 0s&1s is on the edge of whatever comes next for publishing, as evidenced by the fact that this month they announced that they will no longer be taking ANY cut of the sales from their site. As the managing director of Publishing Genius’s own Ebook Flights, I decided to catch up with the founder, Andrew Lipstein, and talk about the business and what its future holds.
What’s your history as a reader of ebooks? Were you an early adopter? What kind of device do you read on?
Like many people, I came to ebooks with the thought ‘I prefer the real [physical] thing’. But a couple years ago, my brother got me a Kindle for my birthday. Though I broke that Kindle (and, eventually, ~ 3 others), the experience changed my perspective for good. (Plus, 0s&1s may not exist if not for that gift!) I currently use my girlfriend’s Kindle (one of the earlier generations, no lit screens for me).
What makes 0s&1s different from other ebook stores?
Against Amazon et al, we focus on keeping our selection small (as opposed to trying to get everything under the sun). Theoretically, this flips the discovery-fulfillment paradigm on its head. We’re fundamentally a discovery platform.
In addition, we also feature excerpts and three conversation series: In “Pixelated” we put two writers on a sort of Google Chat blind date; “The Art of Commerce” has interviews on anything that involves both lit and the marketplace; “A Bit Contrived” is a satirical, improvised author interview series that makes up the book in question through the course of conversation.
Another small point is that we only sell DRM-free books (without Digital Rights Management). You’d be hard pressed to find Amazon doing that any time soon, most notably because it helps to keep readers locked in to using their devices.
You recently changed the business model. What was behind that?
Up until June, we gave publishers 80% of the profits. Now we give them 100%. It was a result of a long, hard look at what value we provide (both publishers and readers). Because we sell DRM-free, fulfillment is an absolutely frictionless, zero-cost process. What right do we have taking some of the profit, when it doesn’t cost us anything to get the book to the reader. Well, just as much as The Millions or LitHub when they introduce you to your next read. That is, we don’t deserve any of the profit. Looking at the industry more abstractly, it’s also apparent that ebooks could (still) be a great book to publishers’ bottom lines (even with lower retail prices). For more information on this (and why we changed the business model), I’ll redirect you to an article I published on Medium.
When starting 0s&1s, how did you find publishers to involve?
We contacted publishers we admired, ones we wanted to bring to a greater readership, ones who were dedicated to producing quality literature. I still can’t thank those that came on board early enough, for taking a risk, and for experimenting without any reason to.
Do you have any history with online retail? What did you know, going in, and what surprised you?
I didn’t. My background was limited. I graduated with a degree in Math, worked in advertising for a bit, first on the business side, then on the writing side, then on the business side again. As inane as it sounds, I’m reminded of the power of the Internet every day. To be able to sell a book to someone in Japan just as easily as to someone in Mississippi—that’s magic. Up to this point, we’ve sold books to customers in 20+ countries across five continents, and every time I see a new place, a tiny kernel of happiness sits inside me and stays there. I hope that novelty never wears off.
What was the biggest obstacle you needed to overcome?
Getting your name out there is the biggest obstacle for any digitally-based company. Fortunately, we live in a time where you can do that while having fun (i.e. social media, the conversation series).
What kind of responses have you been seeing?
Wonderful responses. It’s the biggest motivating factor, quite literally. For someone to let you know they found a book through you and enjoyed it thoroughly is an immense, inimitable feeling. Even for someone to buy a book or magazine is a nod of approval in some way, and one that drives me to sell more.
Do you keep track of what formats are being purchased most often?
We sell all titles as a digital package, containing .epub, .mobi & .pdf in most cases (sometimes only .pdf or .mobi). Thus, it’s impossible to track that. If we engaged our readership with surveys, it would be the first question I’d ask. Maybe that’s for a later today.
In an interview last year with Diana Wagman, you talk about publishers that push limits. What are some publishers that did that in the past, and what did they do? Are there any that continue that trend now?
This is an incredibly simplified way of looking at it, but fifty years ago, most publishers had that mission: to push boundaries, to give the public something new and exciting. I think as you move to the modern day, you’ll find the biggest publishers are tailoring what they publish to meet readers’ desires and expectations. It’s a sound way to grow a business, but not a culture. Nowadays, you have a large variety of smaller publishers pushing boundaries in disparate ways. For me, the most impressive of these can put out something new while getting it to as many readers as possible. Call it literary commercialism. So as to not name favorites, I’ll say a few houses who I don’t sell who are doing this: Graywolf, Coffee House, Melville House.
Do you believe that this digital model will ultimately help advance the exposure needed for independent publishing houses?
Oh god yes. I mean, I hope so. When you switch from physical to digital, you remove the inherent advantage larger houses have for economies of scale.
Where do you see 0s&1s in five years?
I strongly hope I don’t know. If I did know, why wouldn’t I bring us there today? 0s&1s has pivoted, morphed and expanded in ways I couldn’t have possibly have anticipated, and I think that ability to change has afforded us very necessary freedoms.