Publishing needs to face up to to its image problem, IPA President YS Chi said during a speech to the UK Publishers International Conference in London.
“In the digital age, we are perceived as relics from another era. No longer guardians of culture, we are now greedy gatekeepers of knowledge." This perception stems from the fact that "the majority of people do not know what publishers actually do.”
Publishers should respond through experimentation (eg new business models, smart use of technology to create an enhanced reading experience) and engagement (anticipating readers' future needs, steering governments towards fair policy). A crucial issue will be how to supply the marketplace with content that is in the right format and which is easily findable. "In the digital world, it's easy to make something available to the public. The difficulty is in making content known to the public."
Experimentation and Engagement: The Way Forward for Publishing
I’d like to talk about what I view as two key challenges our industry is facing, and two ways forward. I’ll start off with the obvious: everything is changing. The pace and breadth and complexity of the change we’re all seeing across every field of publishing is dramatic, significant, and tremendously challenging.
First, technology is constantly changing and at an ever increasing rate. Already, dedicated e-readers are being replaced by tablets and smartphones. The boundaries between digital “containers”—whether ebooks, apps, or websites—will only continue to blur. Traditional formats and lengths—the novel, the scholarly article, the monograph—are being challenged. Even the book itself is changing. Literally. Books used to be static—once printed, that was it. Now, authors can change anything about a book at any time. Technology is also enabling readers to engage with the author directly or with other fans online in forums, wikis, and social media websites. Some authors and publishers—Sourcebooks for example—are releasing books early, soliciting feedback from readers, and then incorporating that into the final versions of the books. Technology also allows us to know a lot more about how people read. Apps record how much time people spend reading a book, where they stop reading, and which passages are popular. All of this can be helpful information to authors and publishers.
These changes in technology are resulting in evolving consumer expectations. With more and more content available online, readers feel they should pay less and less for it. This undervalues the hard work authors put into their writing, as well as the value added by publishers. At the same time, consumers expect content to be easy to find and easy to access. In the hyper-connected digital world, geographic boundaries are being challenged as consumers interact with other consumers all over the globe. They now expect every e-book to be available for instantaneous download on any device—be it laptop, ereader, tablet, or smartphone—anywhere in the world and at the same price. Furthermore, that content should be linked to other content—dictionary definitions of words, for example—and formatted with the capability to display readership statistics, making reading a more dynamic and communal activity.
Part of what is so challenging about the current business environment is that readers are still trying to figure out what they want. Some are in favour of extending first sale doctrine to digital objects. Others don’t want to own any content, preferring to license everything as long as it’s available to download off the cloud whenever they want it. But what this means is that delivering on those evolving consumer expectations has become a challenging race where the finish line keeps moving forwards. And of course, the composition of the workforce and the industry itself is changing. There is a lot of ambiguity about where everyone fits in in the publishing ecosystem. Tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are being referred to as publishers, while publishers now employ engineers, social media gurus, web developers and designers, increasingly resembling tech companies themselves. As publishers move towards licensing, rather than sales, the offerings of publishers and libraries now look identical. E-tailers like Amazon are entering publishing, and self-publishing is growing hugely: in 2012, more than 391,000 self-published books were published in the US [156K e-books and 235K print books]. This was an increase of 59% from 2011 and 422% since 20071.
This change is threatening and challenging, as all big change is. But the most dangerous thing for publishers to do is to ignore it.
The second challenge is that we as an industry have an image problem. In the digital age, we have become incumbents. We are perceived as relics from another era—dinosaurs is a word I’ve heard a well-known US author use to describe publishers. No longer guardians of culture, we are now faceless, greedy, inefficient gatekeepers who seek to lock up culture and knowledge.
How did this happen? Well, one thing digital migration has made very clear is that the majority of people do not know what publishers actually do. Many, many people seem to confuse publishers with printers. To a lot of people, it seems like e-books are less work for publishers because we aren’t printing them and shipping them to bookshops—that e-books are cheaper to produce and easier to distribute. They do not realize that the costs associated with printing a book are just a small percentage of our total investment in a book. They do not realize that the creation of quality content is a massively laborious process, requiring infrastructure much more expensive than any printing press. That in the digital age, there are more steps, not fewer, needed to produce an e-book as we need to meet different technical requirements for each device and e-tailer. Just because Wordpress has a ‘publish’ button does not mean that’s what we do. So, there’s a big disconnect between how much we are doing and how much of that is known by those outside our industry.
So, how do publishers navigate these challenges effectively? Two ways: experimentation and engagement. Allow me to explain.
First: Experimentation. Today, it is not enough to produce high quality content. Much in the way the music industry has moved toward selling concerts, publishers will need to think creatively about new ways to monetize content. Leveraging technology will be key. Increasingly, publishers will need to create a reading experience—what some call augmented reality. Books can now be interactive—they can incorporate different kinds of media, or even employ non-linear storytelling. In the past, books were confined to physical objects or dedicated e-readers that were not fully connected. But now, readers are just one-click away from the world. This has huge implications for connectivity and social integration of reading— for how we experience the act of reading. Those who do not embrace technology on the product side do so at their peril.
Publishers also need to experiment with business models—we need to get that right. Many publishers are already experimenting with different business models. We have agile publishing, subscription models (book clubs), freemium (i.e. 1st book in a series is a loss-leader), ads incorporated into books (as with online newspaper articles), and bundling with other (physical) products. We all need to be experimenting. And don’t be afraid to fail: our motto around being innovative at my company is to fail often and fail early. We need to learn from those experiences in order to do better. It’s vital that we keep trying new things to find what works as our customers figure out what they need.
But one thing that is certain is that publishers need to make things as easy as possible for readers. We need to be proactive about supplying the marketplace with content that is in the right format and is easily findable. In the digital world, it’s absurdly easy to make something ‘available’ to the public—that is a button. What’s increasingly difficult is making content known to the public. We now compete with games, movies, TV, and social media for readers’ eyeballs. Attention—not content—is scarce. We also need to streamline the rights permission process. On the second point, the Copyright Hub here in the UK is a great start. We definitely need to make things easier for consumers, most of whom want to support creators but are overwhelmed by the difficulty in identifying who owns the rights to what. Now to the second point: engagement. This is about addressing our image problem. Going forward, publishers need not only to understand the needs of readers, but also the capabilities of technology to understand how we can meet those needs and even anticipate future needs. The more you truly understand what's going on, the better decisions and choices you will be able to make.
But we also need to communicate effectively what publishers do as government decision-makers navigate policy in the digital age. The Internet lobby has arrived, and both the public and the government are smitten with the story they’re currently selling. Copyleft advocates continue to seek to erode copyright, arguing it stifles creativity and painting publishers as greedy. We need to make sure theirs aren’t the only stories being heard, and their interests aren’t unfairly favoured by policymakers. More than ever, we need to work with governments as well as with other industry stakeholders, particularly technology companies and internet service providers, to find solutions to issues like digital piracy. When we engage, we can help steer policymakers towards balanced policy that works and educate tech companies about what we do and figure out ways we can work together to better serve consumers.
Engagement is particularly important for international publishers as markets in developing countries grow. In many of these countries, there is often a lack of understanding of and support for copyright. There, engagement will mean often mean educating policymakers about the importance of copyright and publishing to their economies. Protecting intellectual property promotes innovative, open and competitive markets. To help publishing grow in developing countries, government engagement and education is essential.
To conclude, we are in the midst of the one of the most challenging but also exciting times to be in publishing. There’s a great deal of uncertainty, but sitting back and watching things unfold is not an option. To quote Winston Churchill, “This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.”