Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's No Pocalypse at Digital Book World

© Babette Ross
"It's like you're taking a first step on the road to the valley of death." The topic was ebook metadata, but the speaker's statement could as well be applied to the Digital Book World (DBW) Conference as a whole. "Fear no ebooks" was the message of the conference, and it was a welcome message to many of the participants that I talked to. "I'm just trying to learn about ebooks" and "we're trying to decide what to do" were phrases I heard more than once.

In contrast to O'Reilly's Tools of Change for Publishing conference, which is coming to the same venue only 3 weeks later, DBW is not going to scare the publishing community with revolutionary business models or fire and brimstone sermons about the dire future of publishing. DBW was about providing a security blanket and a helpful hand to trade publishers venturing into a world full of doubt and uncertainty.

Mike Shatzkin  (©Babette Ross)

DBW Shepherd-in-Chief Mike Shatzkin did a great job developing a modestly challenging and useful program. His opening list of suggestions mirrored the topics of the executive panel. He exhorted publishers to:   
  1. Begin to engage with their consumers and communities.
  2. Get the rights in order.
  3. Don't rely on just Amazon and Google, reach out to other markets and channels through partners such as Ingram and Overdrive.
The mood of the conference, however, was set by conference organizer Guy Gonzalez, self-styled Chief Executive Optimist. Although one attendee worried to me about pervasive complacency in the trade publishing industry, Gonzalez's view is that publishing is an activity fundamentally essential to our culture, and that one way or another, publishers are finding ways to survive and thrive as their focus shifts from a print oriented supply chain to a digital ecosystem.

Guy Gonzalez (© Babette Ross)
The conference's discussion of the role of libraries in that ecosystem was emblematic of the conference as a whole. In a question for Tuesday's executive panel, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches/Trashy Books asked Macmillan US President Brian Napack why she was unable to borrow his books from libraries. His non-answer was that Macmillan was "hard at work trying to find a business model that will work for us", and no, libraries had not "fallen by the wayside". After the panel, Napack exited quickly; I'm betting it was not so that he could get back to the office and work on a library strategy.

Open Road Integrated Media CEO Jane Friedman disagreed firmly with Napack's remarks. Her goal is to have all her books in libraries, because the library consumer is not the same as the book buying consumer. Someone downloading an ebook from a library is "only one step away from being a customer."

The follow-up to this discussion came this afternoon, in a panel that Gonzalez called the session he was most proud of. Moderated by Library Journal's Josh Hadro, the panel included both a librarian (New York Public Library Deputy Director Christopher Platt) and big 6 vice president (Random House Director of Account Marketing Ruth Liebmann), which doesn't happen very often.

Platt explained the basics of how ebook lending works at NYPL, explaining that NYPL did a lot of work to familiarize patrons with the mechanics of ebook lending, and he pointed out that a patron interested in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (as an example) had to be told that its publisher was unwilling to allow library lending.

Liebmann pointed out that libraries have mechanisms to reach out to readers and promote a publisher's materials, exactly the sort of engagement missing for most trade publishers. A library book does not compete with sales, a library book IS a sale. Libraries provide a revenue stream for publishers comparable to independent book sellers, and it's a profitable one- libraries never return books the way bookstores do.

According to George Coe, President of the Library and Education Division of book distributor Baker & Taylor, the library market constitutes a total of $1.9 billion in the US. He pointed out that libraries could reach only 2% of the market at the very most for a popular book, and it was exactly the same for ebooks. His company was doing everything it could to protect the profitability of publishers that participated in their ebook program. Libraries customers are also easy on inventory- 98% of their purchases come within 18 month of a books publication.

But it was Overdrive's Steve Potash who delivered the most powerful argument that libraries belong in the ebook ecosystem. The visibility that libraries give to ebooks is incredibly valuable. With the millions of page views the libraries were giving to ebooks, the publishers should be paying the libraries, not the other way around, according to Potash. It's worth noting that no other provider of ebooks in libraries has nearly as high a publisher-world profile as Overdrive. Overdrive is playing an important role in getting publishers to think about libraries as a distribution channel, and Potash's evangelical presence on the panel played well with the audience of publishers. He even gave them homework. "Go and try it yourself!" he urged. I hope they manage to do so.

Liebmann summed up the session, and unintentionally, the conference as well, when she described her "Library Listening Tour". By going out and meeting the customers, she learned about what they really wanted from ebooks, which was useful even if she wasn't going to be able to make everybody's dreams come true. Where her dreams going to come true? "I'm feeling so good at DBW, I'm thinking that maybe they will."

(Photos © Babette Ross, used with permission.)
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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this report, Eric. Here is the key issue for me:

    "Although one attendee worried to me about pervasive complacency in the trade publishing industry, Gonzalez's view is that publishing is an activity fundamentally essential to our culture, and that one way or another, publishers are finding ways to survive and thrive as their focus shifts from a print oriented supply chain to a digital ecosystem."

    We all agree that publishING is not going away; the question is whether it follows that publishERS are therefore going to be with us forever. I think it's too easy to assume that the conclusion follows inevitably from the premise, but that's really just being seduced by a pun. The existence of this blog is evidence that "publication" of a kind can and does now happen without publishers.

    In truth, conventional publishers have had a very complex business model that conflates several very different services offered to authors (editing, design, printing, distribution, marketing) and to readers (primarily selection). It's not yet clear which of these services are still indispensable, and which have been superseded by Internet services; nor is it clear whether the ones that remain necessary are going to remain the domain of a single kind of business called a "publisher", or whether they'll get broken up: I can imagine that, with print-on-demand handling the physical copy issue, and online marketing becoming more practical with each passing year, authors who require editing and design might increasingly find it more cost-effective to pay specialists directly to do these jobs for them, and avoid the inequitable income split that comes with a traditional publishing agreement.

    I have a couple of friends who have each published several books. One of them self-publishes, to very good effect -- it helps that he was a designer in his previous day-job, and can therefore do his own design work. The other has always used a publisher and swears blind that he will never self-publish because it's too much work. (This despite his being permanently broke -- he could really use a bigger cut of his cover price.) I'm not sure what to make of these observations beyond the obvious fact that what works for some people won't work for others.

    A final thought: I can envisage the emergence of "micro-publishers" -- individuals or very small groups who know editors, designers, printers, etc., and can subcontract to these services on an authors behalf. Micro-publishers should be able to move more quickly and lightly than conventional do-everything publishers, and to charge authors a correspondingly smaller percentage. Will publishing become a cottage industry?


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