The first Publishers Launch Conferences show outside the United States, “A Global Perspective on Digital Change”, will be at the Congress Centre in central London on June 21, with the Publishers Association serving as our partners in putting on the event. We also owe special thanks to the PA’s group of Digital Directors, who were extremely generous with their time and insight. If you can be in London that day, you couldn’t find a better way to spend it than with us.
We’re still putting the finishing touches on what will be a one-day conference packed with illuminating conversation, but we can tell you quite a bit about it already. We aim to deliver strategic, practical, and focused discussion of near-term issues and opportunities. This won’t be a showcase for cool products or a venue to debate what the future might look like some day. We’re examining essential issues — ebook “export” opportunities; what happens to territorial rights; hiring and retraining to meet today’s challenges; revamping publishing systems for a dual print and digital paradigm; getting “found” on digital shelves — that publishing professionals should focus on now to thrive in the days to come.
The UK market is in between the US and the rest of the world in its migration from print to digital reading. Kindle and iPad sales really took off last Christmas and, while ebook penetration may be a fourth or less of what it is in the US, it has grown enough to be disruptive and to generate a consensus acceptance that very substantial change in the industry is inevitable.
On the one hand, my PLC partner Michael Cader and I have followed the developments in the US very closely so we have some firsthand experience with some aspects of what the UK trade is going through. On the other hand, we know history won’t repeat itself precisely. There are important differences in the markets and there is a substantial group of companies with experience and capabilities developed in the North American market that can hit the ground running in Britain or anywhere else in the world. That alone will make everybody else’s experience different than what happened in the US.
In order to be sure we were talking with the UK industry, not at it, we took some preparatory steps. In February, we put a large number of ideas for panels and topics up on Survey Monkey and invited 70 players in the UK book trade to express their opinions on them. In five days, 40 of the people responded.
Then we followed up by spending three days in London meeting with about 50 people to discuss our ideas and theirs. Our partners at the PA provided invaluable assistance, hosting our conversations and inviting us to join a regular meeting of the Digital Directors to get the insights of the most knowledgable people in the UK market. Those conversations were crucial in helping us focus properly on topics and in locating some key sources of insight. Frankly, despite our long experience working with the British publishing community (I have visited London on business three or four times a year for 35 years), putting this conference together would have been impossible without the help we got.
But because of that help, I think we’ll be presenting the UK publishing community with a lot of very useful discussion that hasn’t taken place at the many prior gatherings that have discussed book publishers and digital change.
One topic that we identified very early is the opportunity we see for publishers in Britain and Ireland to sell into the US market now without payng for a distributor infrastructure or taking an inventory risk. When we started to explore this topic, we learned that, of course, people are definitely starting to plan for it. Some are starting to exploit it. This was something we thought should be happening below the radar, and it is.
This is a peculiar opportunity, because it might be more important for independent UK publishers large and small than it is for the biggest global players. We’re still filling out the panel for this one, but we have Helen Kogan of Kogan Page, an independent whose company was already working in the US market (and therefore has some helpful experience to pass along) but who is seeing the expanded opportunity presented by digital, and Jean Harrington of Maverick House Publishers in Dublin. Jean is also President of Publishing Ireland and we invited her to join this particular conversation for a reason. The Irish diaspora in the US has a particularly strong identity with the old country and we expect books of Irish history and Irish fiction will find a substantial additional market through ebook sales in America.
We’re working on adding another British publisher and an agent to that dialogue.
Another topic arose out of a conversation that longtime UK consultant Mark Bide and I had while we were at Tools of Change in New York in February. How long will it be, I wondered, before half of UK sales are digital? Mark said he wasn’t sure about the timing, but he was sure that the publishers’ systems, overhead allocations, staffing, and infrastructure would require a lot of adjustment to be ready for that day. That’s a good conference topic, we thought.
Then, in our conversations at the PA 10 weeks ago, Anthony Forbes Watson, the MD of Pan Macmillan, told us he had charged his team with thinking through the question exactly as we had defined it. Anthony wants to know “what does 50% ebooks look like? What do we have to do to be ready for it?” The next day we talked to James Long of Pan Mac who told us that, yes, he was actually the person in the company with the primary responsibility for thinking this question through.
We decided the best frame for this conversation was “thinking about the future.” James, as he will tell us on June 21, is largely focused on what Pan Mac needs to do in systems development and integration, workflow changes, and skills development to be ready for a 50% digital world.
But there are two other aspects of preparing for the future we felt could be illuminated by other panelists we recruited.
Perseus, a US company whose Constellation division that provides digital services to smaller publishers is a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, is one of several companies in the world (Ingram in the US is another; so might Random House be in the US and the UK) that are investing in warehouses and print book distribution capabilities at precisely the time many publishers are disinvesting in them, precisely because they know that most publishers will have to disinvest in them. They’re trying to be there for publishers who want to dispose of fixed cost overheads for the shrinking print book market. We put Rick Joyce of Perseus into this conversation to cover the sensitive topic of consolidation on the physical side (a subject that Dominic Myers, the MD of Waterstone’s, famously put on the UK publishing community’s agenda a couple of months ago.)
Copyright Clearance Center, the US RRO which is also a global sponsor of Publishers Launch Conferences, has steadily called our attention to another industry-wide challenge: the need to manage rights more effectively and on a more granular level to take advantage of emerging opportunities to license chunks and fragments for apps, ebooks, and web sites. We thought that the voice for this topic in London should be local, and we were pleased that Sara Faulder, head of the Publishers Licensing Society, agreed to join this conversation.
Mark Bide has agreed to moderate this group in what I think will be a dialogue about publishers and the digital future unlike any the audience will have heard before. (Except, that is, if they are at our Publishers Launch BEA show on May 25, where we’ll have a different version of this conversation, one more focused on export and rights sales than infrastructure, but also covering the change we’ll see to selling more and more fragments.)
We’re not above stealing our own ideas and giving them a local spin. One panel that was extraordinarily successful at Digital Book World last January was one we describe in shorthand as “new skill sets”. It’s about capabilities publishers need to get that they don’t have and it is about process and workflow changes and the use of cross-functional teams as well as hiring in or training people with new skills. Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins did that panel for us in New York in January and is reprising it at our BEA show. In London, he’ll be joined by Juan Lopez-Valcarel of Pearson and Jacks Thomas, the CEO of Midas Public Relations, on a panel moderated by Jo Howard of Mosaic Search & Selection Ltd. One of the key elements in the New York discussion of this, which we expect will arise again in London, is “when is it best to hire in the skills and when is it better to retrain the people I already have?” This is a subject every publisher needs to be thinking about that isn’t discussed in public very often.
We’ll have three of the top digital leaders of UK houses — George Walkley of Hachette, David Roth-ey of HarperCollins, and Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan — joining Michael and me for a dialogue about the big companies who have cut their teeth on the US market and are now taking their capabilities worldwide, starting in the UK. We’ll be talking about Amazon, Apple, Google, Kobo, Ingram, and Overdrive (the six clearly-declared and clearly-capable global ebook players) as well as Sony, aspirants like Copia and Blio, and US titan Barnes & Noble (which has shown no clear signs of global interest yet.) It looks to us like there is only one UK player with a global perspective, still-tiny cell phone provider Mobcast, but we’ll be learning from our panelists whether there are others we should be considering. And our audience will learn more about the North American companies which are bound to be a big part of the local market’s ebook life in the years to come.
We’ve reached a time when “metadata” is an important subject to discuss, no matter how dry or back room it has seemed. We were fortunate to get Graham Bell of EDItEUR to moderate a dialogue about this for us. He’s recruited Jon Windus of Nielsen and Karina Luke of Penguin to discuss it with him. We’re now looking for a retailer to join them. The condition of metadata in the marketplace is not good enough in enough places yet. This is costing publishers sales. This panel will explain why that is and what every publisher should do to make sure this isn’t a huge hole in the side of their boat as online sales, print and digital, grow and the impact of metadata grows right along with them.
We are also going to have a discussion of the future of territorial rights. Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury, a well-known skeptic about them, and David Miller, an agent with Rogers, Coleridge and White Ltd., have agreed to participate. We’re looking for a full-throated defender of the current territorial regime to join them in what will be more of a conversation than a debate. We wonder whether territorial rights make as much sense in a 50% ebook world as they do in the 5% ebook world we might now be in. The agent’s voice in this conversation might be the most important one because, after all, they decide whether the deals are acceptable or not.
One thing that the territorial rights dialogue will certainly entertain is what we should expect to see in terms of author initiatives. That topic is bound to come up in two other discussions as well. There’s one we’re now calling “experiments, best practices, and out of the box thinking” which is really about innovation. But we are going to focus on innovation in business models and practices and innovation in marketing, not on product innovation. We are still working on putting this group together, but we were very impressed with our preliminary conversations with two of the panelists.
Marc Gascoigne is at Angry Robot, a sci-fi imprint started by HarperCollins and then bought by Osprey. Angry Robot’s better mousetrap is its community focus; Gascoigne will make the case that doing that right (which many publishers say they want to do) requires that everybody, and that means every editor and everybody else, communicate directly with the audience. It is hard to see putting that across in many established trade houses.
Richard Mollet of the PA will moderate the conversation with the innovators.
Also on that panel will be Peter Cox, an agent with Redhammer. Cox is changing his own business model (providing more in the way of services to his authors, but charging them more for it and looking to represent fewer authors, not more) but he’s effectively changing the author-publisher relationship as well by making the author an active marketer and community gatherer. He’ll have examples and he’ll have ideas that will challenge the thinking of many publishers and agents in the audience.
The last panel of our day is intended as a Grand Finale. Michael Cader and I will sit with Stephen Page of Faber, Rebecca Smart of Osprey, John Makinson of Penguin, and agent Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown. We’ll get their take on the speed of the ebook takeup and its consequences.
How will British publishers cope in a market that may soon have no full-line bookstore chain? How will the industry cope with the rise of self-publishing? Is there any real danger of a consolidated English-language world in which London becomes subsidiary to New York? Or, in some companies, might it be vice-versa? Will both agents and publishers be changing the core business models which have prevailed for the past century over the next few years?
What excites me about the last panel — aside from the sheer smarts and savvy of the people we got to join us — is the diversity of their perspectives. The publishers run companies of different sizes and with very different approaches to building their publishing lists. The agent joining us has gained a reputation as one of the most digitally savvy players in the UK market. Michael and I thrive on spirited conversations with very smart people; we think we’re going to finish the day very stimulated and with big smiles on our faces.
And we think our audience will too.
Of course, before we get to London, we’ll be running our “eBooks Go Global” show aimed at international visitors and their trading partners at BEA. At that show, we’re particularly excited about two panels we won’t be doing in London. One is with a few booksellers already working with the new Google Ebooks capability reporting on how it is functioning for them. The other takes a slightly different approach to the “selling in the US” opportunity. Patricia Arancibia of Barnes & Noble, which has aggregated about ten times as many ebooks in Spanish as most people in Spanish markets will tell you exists, will open a lot of foreign publishers’ eyes to the possibilities that exist for them in the US market. We’ll also have a chat with Barry Eisler, the author who turned down half-a-million bucks to self-publish. And that’s not all. Tickets still available… And tickets still available for London as well.