E-publisher CEO heads back to the future, but her roadmap is blurry

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Jane Friedman sounded bullish at a lunchtime lecture on Tuesday. Speaking about the state of her field, the CEO of Open Road Integrated Media said to members of New York University 's Master of Science Publishing Program: "This is the most exciting time for publishing. There are more books, more diverse formats, and more opportunities to serve customers in a whole new way."

Friedman has reason to be excited. She made waves this year by launching an e-book publishing venture after departing mysteriously from HarperCollins, where she was CEO from 1997 to 2008. But the opening of her short keynote speech and the lengthy Q&A that followed underscored the nagging sense that, at least publicly, Open Road is more about buzz and less about specifics.
Open Road is, Friedman says, "a publishing marketing company" with big plans to promote its e-books -- as many as a thousand of them in the first year -- through today's tried-and-true channels: Facebook, Twitter, video features. It had already announced it would start out by concentrating on the backlist, offering e-book editions of titles by William Styron, Pat Conroy, and Iris Murdoch.

But as part of what Friedman calls its "layer cake" strategy, there will also be room for "e-riginal" titles -- fiction and non-fiction, both new books and titles whose global rights had reverted back to the author for sale. Titles that sell well could then be published in print editions by Open Road (via print-on-demand) or in partnership with a "legacy" publisher like Kensington or Grove Atlantic.

On the print-on-demand option, Friedman's "fantasy," she said, is requiring retailers to hold onto copies they've ordered, rather than following the standard industry practice of letting them returning unsold copies. "If an e-book of ours sells 40,000 copies via download, and we decide to do a print run of about 10,000 copies, I can then go to the five biggest retailers and say, 'You've got to be able to stock 8,000 copies in stores, non-returnable. If they can't sell then, they're doing something wrong."

When asked by an attendee about Open Road's stance on digital rights management, Friedman said, "Do I really have to answer? I'm not sure," she confessed. "Initially, I was very against the idea of no-DRM. But now I'm not sure."

A student brought up the possibility of seeding Open Road e-books on piracy networks for analytics and marketing purposes. "I haven't gotten that far," Friedman answered, sounding uncomfortable with the notion. "I'd never say never, but it doesn't really ring true. What do you think?" The student, singled out by Center of Publishing chair Andrea Chambers for his blog post on piracy issues, gave a reply Friedman is familiar with: "I think it merits further investigation."
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