Publishers get real about digital as they are told: “This industry doesn’t owe you a living”
I was lecturing at Birkbek yesterday, on digital publishing, social media marketing – and men in their pants in Basingstoke. For this was the key takeaway message for me at this year’s London Book Fair Digital Conference, which I attended and live-tweeted last weekend: if publishers don’t produce digital content, such as apps, there are plenty of men in their basements in Basingstoke in their pants who will.
This industry doesn’t owe publishers, authors, agents or bookshops a living. We need to find a useful service in the space between authors and their readers. We need fewer people in publishing who are English graduates called Jocasta. But why would developers be attracted to publishing? If we don’t produce digital content, there are plenty of men in basements in Basingstoke in their pants who will.
KATE WILSON, Nosy Crow
In a Book Fair blighted by volcanic ash, this seemed to be one event the volcano couldn’t spoil. With only three last-minute speaker replacements, and grounded delegate spaces back-filled from the waiting list, there was plenty of lively discussion from the platform and the floor. And it was the first digital conference I’ve been to for a long time that wasn’t dominated by Digital Rights Management (DRM) and protectionism, and left me feeling more positive about the future of publishing.
I should clarify something here: I feel positive about the future of publishing – not about the future of the publishing industry. An important distinction. Digital publishing opportunities are huge. Publishers are not necessarily the ones who will benefit.
Speakers included game developers, app developers and mobile experts as well as traditional publishers who are doing digital, plus one author, Alison Norrington, who has been experimenting wildly with social media, and presented her experiences to the slack-jawed amazement of publishers. All positive stuff for a digital conference, since publishers can learn a lot from other industries who have engaged sooner with digital – and from authors, who are often way ahead of their publishers. As Kevin Shrapnell of EA Games pointed out: “The lines between books, ebooks, websites, games are blurring”.
The real asset publishers have is their content – yet they are not really set up to capitalize on the digital economy. David Miller of Rogers, Coleridge & White (@drearyagent) said: “Publishers don’t have the structure to choose whether to publish their content as a hardback, paperback, ebook, website or app – they need to invest in staff and skills to make that possible.”
Publishers don’t have the structure to choose whether to publish their content as a hardback, paperback, ebook, website or app – they need to invest in staff and skills to make that possible.
DAVID MILLER, Rogers, Coleridge & White
I think it is even more serious than this. While publishers agonize over business models and skill sets and which direction they should go in, the world moves on regardless. It is not just men in pants to watch out for – it is authors. As the stigma and barriers to self-publishing continue to drop, authors are not only doing their own marketing with social media, they are disintermediating their publishers with the online self-publishing tools that are also available to them.
The Profit Imperative
Conference chair Richard Charkin said in his opening remarks that there are no shortage of books – but we should be concerned not about volume but value: “Please, please, in the digital age let us price at a sensible level and not underprice to gain volume”. Profit is the real issue in the industry. That suggests to me premium pricing – something difficult to achieve in a digital world where we expect things for free or cheap.
One attempt to maintain the print price of a book in the digital space is with ‘enhanced’ ebooks. Peter Collingridge revealed an interesting new business model for his company Enhanced Editions: no upfront costs for app development (though these are costed and shown to the publisher in advance), and then revenues are split 50/50 with the publisher after development costs have been earned out. This reduces risk and means you don’t need to be a big budget publisher to get started. I would go further and suggest that, to use services such as these – which are proliferating – you surely don’t even need to be a publisher.
I can see enhanced ebooks really working for certain genres: children’s, textbooks, illustrated non-fiction; any sort of ‘how to’ material such as cookery books; and travel books that use augmented reality. I’m less convinced by their potential for fiction – unless you want to avoid carrying around a massive tome – which is the reason I downloaded the app for a book written by a neighbour of mine called Hilary Mantel. I don’t want to read Wolf Hall in the bath, but I’d like to read it while waiting for the bus. I did buy it for a discounted £3.49 though. Would I have paid the full £6.99? I don’t know. But with such a massive market for the iPhone – much bigger than the Kindle – low pricing can surely work in this market. Premuim pricing isn’t the only way to make a profit – mass distribution is another.
It’s not about creating books any more – it’s about creating content.
JOHN DUHIGG, Dorling Kindersley
Simply transferring a printed book to an app – even if it is enhanced with a bit of add-on video – seems less of a value proposition to me than creating something specifically for an app in the first place, such as Jamie Oliver’s hugely successful 20 Minute Meals. Some publishers are doing this. Kate Wilson said: “We’re not interested in transfering books to apps. We commission for apps, and some of them spin off into books.” John Duhigg of Dorling Kindersley previewed the augmented reality iPhone apps they are experimenting with for their Rough Guides, such as an augmented reality version of the Rough Guide to London which ovelays tags of nearby restaurants onto the image of the London street in front of you. And Fionnuala Duggan of Random House introduced their Nigella Quick Collection app, which was produced in-house.
Those publishers not doing this – well, your author can do it anyway and disintermediate you. Jamie Oliver went to a software developer called Zolmo to produce his 20 Minute Meals app. Are they his developer – or his publisher? I see app developers, in the publishing ecosystem, not as service industries operating in the space between publishers and readers but as publishers in between authors and readers. I know not everyone has the profile or resources of Mr Oliver. But, to varying degrees, we can all do this.
Ways of selling cheaply were explored by various panelists. Agent David Miller floated the idea of using technology to enable people to buy books, such as by selling ebooks for £1 or £2 and including a QR code as a voucher that could be used to redeem the cost of the ebook against a printed book. Mobile expert Tony Lynch of Spoken Group Ltd suggested selling ebooks cheaply but making them expire after a certain time, like library books. He also pointed out that mobile networks see books as a major content category in the next five years, and are trying to create a buying culture on their networks – partly through giving books away for free.
But who pays for ‘free’? Someone has to work to create the content in the first place, right? I was pleased to see agent Ed Victor on form, asking sharp questions of the publishers on the panel, as he often does at these conferences. He asked them to explain: “If there are no warehousing costs, no manufacturing costs, no distribution costs, and no bookshop returns, why did we have to drag you kicking and screaming to 25% of net receipts?”
If there are no warehousing costs, no manufacturing costs, no distribution costs, and no bookshop returns, why did we have to drag you kicking and screaming to 25% of net receipts?
ED VICTOR, Literary Agent
Obviously there are costs associated with the production of digital content – but not everyone is going to spend tens of thousands of pounds or dollars on a Jamie Oliver style iPhone app. What if you’re just transferring a printed book to an ereader? I’m a publisher turned author, but even when I was a publisher I think I’d have had sympathy with Ed’s point of view. Despite palpable eye-rolling in the room, this is a fair question that deserves an answer.
If publishers charge too much for digital content, they are at risk of piracy. If they pay authors too little for creating it, their authors will self-publish. And self-publishing was tacitly agreed upon as ‘A Bad Thing’ in the room. But the new digital economy requires new business models – not new ways of holding on to the old ones.
Anyone can do it
It’s great that publishers are engaging in a more open way with digital, making it part of their publishing, and exploring the models for doing so – rather than using these conferences to reassure themselves that everything will be OK, we can protect ourselves with DRM, and it’s still business as usual. But I can’t help thinking that they are still not being radical enough. The problem is that publishers no longer own the publishing industry. When the cost of producing and delivering digital content is minimal, anyone can do it. Where does that leave publishers?
I say anyone. I mean anyone with some creativity. As Kate Wilson said: “Publishers have always outsourced creativity. It’s called authors.”
Richard Charkin concluded the conference with a Jerry Springer style closing thought: “Publishers used to be generalists a few decades ago. They used to have a fiction division, a children’s division, an academic division and so on. We also used to have a single, unified sales medium – called a bookshop. Publishers gradually specialized into more and more niche areas at the same time as they reached more readers with direct marketing. Today we once more have a single, unified sales medium – called the Internet. Perhaps it is time for publishers to become more generalist again?”
Perhaps. In the digital age, there may be opportunities for publishers to publish anything they like and find a market for it online. Trouble is, those same opportunities are open to all. Anyone can be a publisher.
Overall, this conference successfully moved the debate on, and the tone was more of a wake-up call than an invitation to lock the door and have a lie in. More engagement with what is happening than squishing the new digital realities into old business models – what David Miller called “putting new wine in old bottles”. The problem I still have with all of this is that, while publishers are still receiving wake-up calls, the rest of the world has Carped the Diem, been to the gym, had breakfast, taken a few calls and is on the way to a lunch meeting. The world has moved on.
I have some sympathy with Jocasta, the English graduate. She went into publishing to publish books, not develop apps and monetize content. Unfortunately for Jocasta, the market is always right. Responding to what the market wants – how people want to consume and pay for content – is what is needed, rather than reacting to the ‘threat’ of digital.
Is the future as hard to predict as a volcano? Not really. It’s already here.
- Mobile Opportunities: The London Book Fair Digital Conference (futurebook.net)
- London Book Fair Digital Conference Digest: “Take Risks, Fail, Learn, and Try Again” (publishingperspectives.com)
- Publishers must become ‘fleet of foot’, depleted LBF conference hears (thebookseller.com)