The Edge of the Abyss, or a New Golden Age of Publishing?

Yesterday I attended an excellent seminar at Cambridge Wordfest, called ‘The Edge of the Abyss, or a New Golden Age of Publishing?’. It was chaired by Rachel Calder, Director of the Sayle Literary Agency, and the panel included Alex Bowler, senior editor at Jonathan Cape, Isobel Dixon, a director of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and Ailah Ahmed, a senior editor at Canongate.

Here are some of my notes of the main points that arose from the lively and interesting discussion:

– Publishers seemed pretty upbeat prior to the London Book Fair, despite the worst retail month since records began 16 years ago. What could be fueling publishers optimism is ebooks, which are starting to become a real revenue stream, following a ‘Kindle Christmas’.

– Ebooks have now become the bestelling format in the US, albeit with a possible massaging of the figures.

– Publishers have to be thinking about strategy in new ways. Ebooks may drive a resurgence of the novella, which has always been a really hard format to sell in the UK, but which sells well in France. Publishers may have to change the way they think about formats.

– The hardback format may become more specialised, with lavish titles being produced in order to justify the price, and to some extent this could already be happening. There was a reference to ‘The Death of Bunny Monro’, by Nick Cave, which was published as a special edition hardback of 500 copies, all signed and numbered by the author. As ebooks make a certain kind of reading more accessible and cheaper, will people still want a hardback as a kind of souvenir of the reading experience, or to give that hardback experience as a gift?

– The hardback could become a rarer format, due to the costs of production. Maybe standard hardbacks and paperbacks will continue to exist, but with lower sales expectations.

– Publishers now have much better statistics on who is buying their books and why. Ebooks could give publishers the opportunity to monitor the reading experience as it happens. This could be quite scary, but it could be used benevolently to build communities of like-minded people.

– Social media can be useful in order to group people around certain events, and to drive interest in physical events, but you can’t really use it to sell. Physical events such as festivals and reading groups may become more and more important for sales.

– As people begin to consume books digitally, they won’t go to a physical newspaper to start talking about it. This week the Guardian website relaunched their books site, with a much greater emphasis on communities. This could be risky though, as you’re sending your book out there to an online community who might hate it!

– A reliance on social media creates new responsibilities for the authors, in that they have to find the time to participate. Some authors don’t like visiting festivals, and they might hate social media, and this means that they could vanish within the marketplace.

– It’s easier for authors who already have a cult following, such as Nick Cave and Stephen Fry, to be produced in a wide range of digital formats. The majority of ebooks produced will be in the basic format, because it’s so expensive to produce enhanced ebooks and apps. It has to be a very special subject, or a very special author, to go to all the trouble and the expense of the enhancement.

– Publishers in the digital age have to keep it simple. They have to understand that what they do best is finding authors, editing the books and then finding readers.  As soon as they start thinking about apps, they’re not dealing with books, but a hybrid form that has not previously existed.

– Readers consuming books on a tablet can be tempted away from the book by email, the web or a movie, and thus the immersive experience is broken. As soon as publishers start producing books as apps, they’re putting themselves into a marketplace with the rest of the entertainment industry, with organisations that have huge budgets.

– Buyers are very price sensitive, they want apps and ebooks to be cheap. But books are not cheap to produce – it costs a lot in time and overheads to go through the publishing process. Printed books are beginning to look expensive compared to the rest of the market, because most other forms of entertainment are getting cheaper.

– There can be a problem getting the backlist into an ebook format, and ebooks present an opportunity to cheaply drive sales to the frontlist titles. If the author has an out-of-print backlist that the publisher doesn’t want to publish, they can go straight to Amazon and get 70% of the revenue.

– The digital marketplace is an infinite universe – there are millions of books out there, and it can be difficult for people to find them. Amazon is useful as an established sales avenue for printed books, and may be comforting for people making the transition to digital.

– Editorial, publishing and marketing will always be crucial publishing activities, and books will still need to be highly produced. Reading is the quiet, immersive alternative within entertainment culture, and that’s a good thing. Publishers have to play to their strengths.

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