Publishing for Digital Minds


On April 13th the London Book Fair Publishing for Digital Minds took place for the first time at the Olympia Conference Centre, focusing on consumer engagement, future trends and content strategies.

Giving the keynote speech, author David Nicholls said that the debate between digital and physical books has had a ‘kind of gladiatorial flavour’, but, like Luddites, publishers and authors wanted social justice and a fair deal. Rob Newlan of Facebook was on the same page, saying that publishers should ‘think people not pixels’ and not put technology first (a little rich, coming from him!).

Branching Out: New Publishing Models

This panel, that included Anna Lewis of Valobox, Emma Barnes of Bibliocloud, Sam Rennie of Readership, and Robin Cutler of Ingram Spark, agreed that they’d like to see publishers take hold of the publishing framework that now exists and develop new tools for it.

However, traditional values still predominate: editing and design are still crucial to all books, including self-published ones, and these shouldn’t be skimped. But it is more and more the case that the staff of publishing companies spend more and more time on process-driven stuff that doesn’t add value. Technology can help reduce the pain of this. ‘It is easier to write a software programme than write a press release.’ (It has to be said that not everyone would agree with this, especially in the publishing industry!)

Subscriptions: Busting the Myths

This panel, featuring Lisa Van Der Herik of Iannoo-Meulenhoff, Gurtrud Smith of Linhardt og Ringhof and Doug Stambaugh of Simon & Schuster, chaired by Nathan Hull of Mofibo, talked about how the subscription model offers publishers the opportunity to reach new readers as well as communicate with authors and agents.

Smith said Denmark is at present the only country in which every publisher (trade or otherwise) engages with a subscription model. The experience there is that cannibalisation of direct book sales only exists if the subscription model is marketed to existing user bases. Mofibo is trusted by the publishers there. A particular virtue of the subscription model is that it helps publishers to make more from the backlist. Stambaugh said that Simon and Schuster was not unaware of the potential risks of the subscription model. However, one area that it had excelled was in enabling a ‘backlist boutique’ for titles that might not have been supported by traditional retailers. Hull said that subscription services gave the capability of supplying much interesting information back to publishers.

It was agreed that international licensing for subscriptions posed some interesting questions, the answers to which were not yet fully understood. Stambaugh agreed with Hall that authors should be encouraged to think of subscriptions as a sale, but at present Simon & Schuster is concentrating on backlist titles only, because authors deserve to enjoy the outright sales of their frontlist titles. However, the conjunction of subscriptions and frontlist was not out of the question: Simon & Schuster will continue to review the possibilities, perhaps focusing on certain titles only and for specific markets.

Digital Sharing: Protecting Copyright Around the World

Michael Healy of the Copyright Clearance Centre, which was the Gold Sponsor of the Conference, made an eloquent plea for the preservation of copyright in a world in which it is coming increasingly under attack. He said that copyright was the foundation of the publishing industry: this was true ‘today, yesterday and tomorrow’, but the threats become more profound and serious every year. Technology helps to promote content but also makes it very easy to undermine copyright. Many tools now make content sharing easy. They include social networks, e-mail, linking technologies and file-sharing. There are now 139bn active Facebook users and 288m active Twitter users. Although new technologies have added ‘extraordinary richness’ to our lives, overall they are a potential risk to copyright. There is a paradox at work: ‘everyone wants to protect their own intellectual property, but is remarkably sanguine when it comes to breaking the rules about other people’s’.

Copyright law reflects a balance between the needs of the copyright holder and the needs of the user. In many countries of the world, we are not getting the balance right: in Canada new legislation is destroying this balance, by being profoundly hostile to copyright, meaning that we cannot be complacent ‘for a second’. In many countries, legislation can’t keep pace with technological change, especially in the USA, which is currently experiencing ‘the most dysfunctional administration in its history’.
The debate usually emphasises the rights of users without defining their responsibilities. Therefore, three foundations are essential to the health of copyright:

  • Education
  • Enforcement
  • Licensing.

The UK Publishers Association and the bodies which it supports do extraordinarily well with these. Licensing, however, remains a critical issue. ‘We need a global infrastructure that permits global licensing: one that makes the task of licensing cultural works legally on the Internet as easy as it is to acquire them illegally.’ Today it is possible to embed information and copyright licensing tools at the point of content access. Collective licensing works very simply: it is faster and more convenient for the rightsholder. It enables the user to ‘do the right thing’. It drives down costs and allows the whole process to take place on the publisher’s own website – and it works!

This presentation was probably preaching to the converted, but it has been dwelt on at some length because it made certain points about copyright very eloquently and in some instances more forcefully than an individual publisher or trade association might like to do.

Amazon: an Objective Case Study

This session, given by journalist Charles Arthur, was a bold tour de force in investigative journalism which held the audience spellbound. He began by saying that statistics can often mislead if viewed in isolation; for example, the number of petrol stations in the UK has decreased from almost 2,000 to 182, which might be interpreted as a disaster for the oil industry if you didn’t also know that supermarkets now sell petrol. Similarly, the decline in numbers of independent bookshops in the UK began long before e-books came on the scene. Although it is often attributed to this, the causes are most likely various.

Amazon has its troubles too. It sells ‘products’ and ‘services’, including ‘media’ (books, films, e-books). In the fourth quarter of last year its growth rate for international media sales fell below zero (when compared with 2013). ‘Amazon is a big company selling a lot in terms of value, but it’s not getting bigger and bigger and bigger.’ Its position in the market is likely to stay the same. Kindle uptake has stalled. Half of American adults now own a tablet or an e-reader, but Amazon can’t sell e-books to people who don’t have a Kindle. Amazon has sold 30m Kindles, which is ‘not a few, but nowhere near the populations of all the countries to which it sells’. E-books themselves offer possibilities, but in the case of Amazon, because it has emphasised self-publishing, these include wading through a massive slush-pile. The Fire Smartphone, for which Amazon had big ambitions, had probably sold about 35,000 two months after the launch. It has written off somewhere in the region of $170m in unsold phones. The conclusion that Charles Arthur draws is that Amazon ‘isn’t so good at hardware: the Kindle is a one-off’.

Turning to the financials, Arthur said that Amazon has made big revenues but to date not much profit. It uses a specific accounting technique to present negative cashflow of $3.19bn to positive cashflow of $1.08 bn. Wall Street so far has gone along with Amazon, but ‘if it starts to bite, things could get uncomfortable.’

Digital Minds Question Time

Chaired by Richard Mollet, CEO of the PA, panellists included Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Mandy Hill of Cambridge University Press, Andrew Barker of Liverpool University and Dan Kieran of Unbound.

Dan Kieran (Unbound), Charlie Redmayne (HarperCollins), Richard Mollet (PA), Mandy Hill (CUP), Andrew Barker (Liverpool University Library)

Dan Kieran (Unbound), Charlie Redmayne (HarperCollins), Richard Mollet (PA), Mandy Hill (CUP), Andrew Barker (Liverpool University Library)

The first question from the floor was Which functional department in publishing finds change the hardest? Hill said customer services had changed least; Redmayne that all departments and divisions face huge challenges; Barker suggested it might be ‘CEOs and MDs’; and Kieran said authors experience frustration at the number of hurdles between what authors want to do and readers who want to read their books.

The second question was How far along are you from merely diversifying sales from reproduced text [to a digital format]? Redmayne said the focus was on creating a storytelling experience and making sure there were enough channels; ‘We’ll never be ahead of the curve.’ For big trade publishers, most of the revenues come from traditional publishing. Hill said the biggest diversification has come in the shift to Gold Open Access in certain areas. Barker said that the Library at Liverpool University still spends a fair percentage of its budget on traditional text; the puzzle is that this doesn’t suit students’ needs. Liverpool is therefore trying to create its own textbooks; it’s working with the OU to achieve this. Dan Kieran said it was the objective of Unbound to revolutionise the author’s direct connection with the audience and monetise it differently. Its USP is to make more money for authors, whose profession is currently ‘in crisis’.

Mollet asked, given the diversity of these responses, whether we could all learn from each other? Mandy Hill said it was all about motivation and where the writing fits in. From the audience, Sam Missingham (HarperCollins) asked whether it was possible to teach people to think digitally just as much as commercially. Kieran said it was. He’d taught a course at UCL and hired two of the best students immediately. Hill said that many of us try to think digitally but we didn’t grow up with digital, so we have to recruit people to whom it does come naturally. ‘We’re not here to produce books and journals, we’re here to fulfil our mission. It does mean thinking completely differently.’ Barker said that academic librarians are quite ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking digitally, but the challenge is taking their customers, especially academics, with them. Redmayne said it was the publisher’s job to recruit people who do understand the new skills required and empower them.

The panel members were asked what was the greatest digital red herring they had experienced. Redmayne said for HarperCollins it had been developing separate websites for most of its authors, circa 2008. Kieran said that publishers have made a major strategic error in not wanting to go direct to the consumer. Hill said it was investing in the older versions of apps and the CDROM: both illustrated the dangers of the people in charge not really being competent to make decisions because they lacked understanding. Barker also said that it was the danger of people not understanding jumping on the bandwagon: publishers who produce ‘flat’ e-books are guilty of this.

Concluding, Richard Mollet asked for how many more years publishers will need a conference on digital. It was generally agreed that although the term ‘digital’ should probably be dropped, there would always be a need for a conference about innovation in publishing.

And this conference was primarily about innovation. In its early years it was about ideas; then it went through at least a two-year period of being mainly about gismos. This year’s conference was the most thoughtful and targeted yet; almost all of its topics were of interest to all publishing sectors.

Key takeaways

• Technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. Publishers and authors want social justice and a fair deal.
• Technology can reduce the pain of the process-driven stuff that is the bane of all large publishing houses and should be harnessed to do this.
• Subscription models are excellent for promoting the backlist and can provide publishers with a great deal of information about the subscribers.
• We must all be vigilant about protecting copyright on a worldwide basis, for two reasons: everyone wants to protect their own intellectual property, but is remarkably sanguine when it comes to breaking the rules about other people’s; and in many countries, legislation can’t keep pace with technological change. A global licensing structure is needed.
• Amazon is doing well, but not that well: it won’t keep on getting bigger, because it’s not good at selling technology; it is good at selling e-books, but at the expense of wading through a massive slush pile; and it isn’t as financially strong as it may appear (and its Wall Street backers may get fed up with this).
• In the world of digital publishing, finding new ways of monetising authors’ output and engaging with the consumer are crucial.
• Everyone is developing digitally at different rates: smart publishers and smart librarians have to find ways of taking their stakeholders with them.
• Engaging with new technologies before you understand them is likely to end in failure, so it is essential to recruit people who do understand them.
• ‘Flat’ e-books don’t work for the customers of academic publishers.

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