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From Stage to Screen: Theatre Publishers Going Digital

Yes, "the play's the thing"--but is the ebook?

While the word “ebook” might be both a major point of contention and opportunity for advancement in the trade publishing biz, for other publishing sectors, going digital can fall into a completely different hierarchy of priorities. New technology is certainly shaping every aspect of the publishing industry—but what does digital mean in a genre built around physical elements?

In theatre publishing, making actual books is only one aspect of the publishing process. Whereas individual book sales are usually the endgame of trade publishing, in theatre publishing, individual books are often sold as “perusal copies” with the end goal of selling a production (where a licensing fee is charged for every individual performance). Productions are usually where theatre writers make most of their royalties, and depending on box office sales, publishers and authors can earn additional royalties beyond their cut of the licensing fees if a production of a play sells tickets exceptionally well.

Because theatre publishing is very performance-driven, actual book production tends to reflect a performance-centered mindset. Few theatre publishers regularly produce books with professionally designed covers, opting instead for standardized paper covers for their acting editions, and many published plays are never assigned ISBNs. Nevertheless, physical books are still an essential part of the theatre-publishing ecosystem, as casts and crews both need physical copies for notation, blocking, and making sure everyone is… erm… on the same page, so to speak. The theatre publishing industry has not felt the same tremendous pressures of the ebook revolution—but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still rising to the occasion.

Where Traditional Meets Digital

Original Works Publishing (OWP) was the first theatre publisher to offer its titles in digital form, publishing through Kindle’s platform in addition to printing acting editions. Also, to cut down on production costs of physical books and accommodate customers looking for a la carte ten minute plays, OWP offers its Email a Ten Minute Program (ETENS), in which they directly email customers individual ten-minute play titles for $1.95. As a relatively young company founded in 2000, OWP has been able to make a digital transition organically, though digital is not its sole focus or only claim to fame. “Had we not pointed out that OWP was the first play publisher to release our titles as ebooks, we doubt it would have received any attention,” says Jason Aaron Goldberg, President of Original Works Publishing. “Had it been a different company, one with over 100 years of history and thousands of titles, or a company with more easily digestible material such as children’s plays or educational plays, it may have had larger impact.  OWP [is] dedicated entirely to bold, original, innovative material; thus our catalog grows at a slower pace.”

One long-established theatre publisher that has recently entered the ebook realm is Samuel French, a renowned theatre publisher founded in 1830 and home to playwrights like Thornton Wilder and Neil Simon. In the initial phase of launching an ebook initiative, Samuel French already has a selection of titles available in the iBookstore and plans to expand its format offerings so that plays can easily be downloaded onto the Kindle, Nook, and Sony eReader thanks to a partnership with digital distributor INscribe Digital.

As an established brand with a considerable backlist, there are many challenges for Samuel French in converting to digital formats. Two of the biggest challenges are rights and formatting. “Although many of the roads have been paved already in the general book publishing world regarding security and distribution, we do have a somewhat unique challenge specific to our industry,” explains Ken Dingledine, Director of Publications and Operations. “There are titles within our catalogue which have both trade and acting edition publications; in the print world these co-exist.  We are now actively working out a digital strategy with theatrical trade publishers to form a mutually agreeable digital distribution model for these cross-over titles.  We’re also finding some unique formatting challenges inherent to play publishing that do not exist with novel or non-fiction markets.  One such example is translating the format of dual dialogue (two characters speaking at once) to flowable text.”

Making Ebooks Themselves More Performative

Perhaps one of the boldest forays into the digital frontier is not coming from a theatre publisher, but from a theatre production company. L.A. Theatre Works has recently announced their plans to release enhanced ebooks which will combine its extensive Audio Theatre Collection (with audio recordings of past productions available on iTunes and on CD) with the scripts’ texts.

“The larger drama publishers have been very good at focusing on their core business, which has always been manuscripts in printed book form,” explains Trond Knutsen, Audio Sales Director at L.A. Theatre Works. “As a small non-profit without a traditional book printing arm, we have been able to jump into this without having to worry how it will affect other parts of what we do, cause we don’t do those other parts.”

In fact, not worrying about the licensing side allows the company to concentrate more on the library market. Also partnering with INscribe Digital, L.A. Theatre Works’ enhanced ebooks will focus on texts to be read by high schools and in college (classics like Shakespeare and Strindberg) and will be used “first and foremost as an educational tool.” The company also benefits from the experiences of trade publishers, taking its cue from children’s book and audio publishing at BEA. “Our inspiration has come largely from children’s publishing, which has really been pushing the envelope on what can be done in the ebook space, as well as in the app space (such as the mind-blowing Waste Land app by Touch Press),” Knutsen adds. “Part of our mission is to disseminate these fantastic plays to as wide an audience as possible, so the ebook route was just a better fit, we felt. And, I think, pretty unique.”

One thing all three companies face when looking into the possibilities of the digital future is the unique type of readership play scripts have. “Plays continue to have the lowest readership numbers of any form of literature,” says Goldberg at OWP. “Thus, part of the issue will be demand over cost.” Still, Samuel French remains hopeful that digital platforms will only help theatre works reach a wider audience–on the page and the stage. Says Dingledine, “…possibly we are most excited about the exposure ePlays and a broad-reaching platform such as the iBookstore can do for general theatre readership and appreciation. By more fully exposing ePlays to the mainstream reading public, perhaps we are encouraging one more person to read a play; that in turn is perhaps one more person more likely to attend a theatrical production at their local theatre, which is, of course, one more person that has experienced the magic of live theatre.”

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