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London Book Fair Digital Conference

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.

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.

A QR Code

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.
Catch up on the conference tweets at @publishingtalk. Were you at the conference? Let us know your thoughts.

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Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a content writer, author, screenwriter, lecturer, blogger - and the founder of Publishing Talk. He was previously a publisher for 10 years. Publishing Talk aims to help new and emerging authors write, publish and sell books. Advice is available via the blog and our masterclasses and membership programme. More...

7 thoughts on “London Book Fair Digital Conference

  • Yojana Sharma

    It won’t be long before some lean, mean startup occupies the space that publishers have left vacant. Just as Amazon crept up behind booksellers, the digital startup will become a competitor before any of the dinosaur publishers will notice, and then they will only be playing catch-up.
    That startup may not even emerge from Basingstoke, probably more like Bangalore. Now there’s a scenario: English-language publishing (particularly textbooks) moves East because it can in a digital world.

  • “there are plenty of men in their basements in Basingstoke in their pants who will.”
    That’s one of the scariest lead-ins I’ve ever read. Having lived near Basingstoke I can imagine that scenario..

  • Hi there,
    In reply to the Malvern Writers’ Circle, we at are offering services to publishers who are trying to make sense of digital and need some help in forming a strategy. We are happy to meet with publishers for a free no commitment open discussion on the various opportunities out there.
    I agree with Jon’s article in that many publishers are missing the point with digital and are seeing at it as a bolt on to their existing business rather than a potential evolution.
    As in many industries where significant change happens, there is a great deal of opportunity for re-casting the landscape, if publishers don’t redefine their role they will be left behind.

  • Thank You John
    This is rigorous journalism and much better commentary than I am reading elsewhere.
    Like you, I share the overwhelming sense that publishers are not necessarily the protagonists on this new digital stage – even the small and medium sized ones are finding it difficult letting go of legacy business practices and dying markets – basement geeks in underpants are the genuine new entrants although I am not sure the team at Enhanced Editions would like that label!
    The point is that change doesn’t start with technology and yet too many people are fixated with it. Instead, leaders need to rethinking markets, business models, audiences, workflows, business drivers, teams, roles, skills, marketing, new product development and they need a “hero project” to act as catalyst for change in their organisation. They also need vision and urgency to drive change and I don’t see enough signs of that anywhere.
    I am a consultant offering the best advice in this area and yet the leaders I talk to file the problem and its challenges at the bottom of their inbox whilst they wait for the bank manager to call them in.
    As you say “Anyone can do it” – I myself spent Sunday afternoon publishing on the Internet for my audience using digital rich media and Apple software. The cost of producing, delivering and distributing that digital content was 3 hours of “prosumer” time – so, yes, where does that leave publishers? Not as content creators but as content curators who search for, locate, aggregate, filter and offer their communities the relevant stuff that will inspire, educate and connect their customers.
    Stephen Bateman

  • Well, yes, you’re right in the context of the economic collapse, Ernesto! I’m really talking about the same thing you are – i.e. producing products that the market actually wants, rather than doing things because we’ve always done them – i.e. being more market-focused about publishing. In that sense the market is right (about what products are needed).
    Quality is important too, of course. And this is one role publishers still have – those quality control, filtering, editorial, gatekeeping functions. Or is it? I think good content will still find an audience online – even if it is self-published.

  • Thanks for this post.
    One comment, though. “The market is always right.” Really? I thought that had been proven wrong several times, with one particularly bad example last year. Or have we forgotten?
    If the publishing industry is struggling to make profit is because the market has not always been right. A big problem is that often those who make decisions about what people “want” have no real idea of who that people is or what “wanting” really means. When “profit” becomes the only or most important reason to do things (especially those “things” publishers do), then, well, to be honest we are doomed.
    So it’s not about creating “content”. It’s about creating quality. “Quality” is a word with a long heritage. It evokes the senses– it does not matter if it’s digital or analogue or both, many readers and collectors want quality, and will pay for it.
    If it’s bad content, we won’t want it, even for free.

  • As a body of 40 writers, some serious, some published, the Malvern Writers’ Circle is researching the modalities of forming a publishing cartel.
    It has been difficult for us to research this enormous field because we are, as a body, less at home with the intricacies of ever-changing IT than we are with the creative muse and MSWord.
    Jon Reed’s article on epublishing has been informative, and has shown us that there is a large untapped market of authors out here who need access to epublishing information and some whizkids who can inform, educate and guide us.
    Is there anyone out there? Either authors, whizkids, epublishers or other Writers Groups? If so, please contact me, Verity, at
    for Malvern Writers’ Circle – Research, Publishing Cartel

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