For the most part, book publishing is a business that requires looking well
into the future. Once books are commissioned, they take months, if not
years, to be completed editorially before they can even be introduced into a
lengthy production and marketing process, and then be launched into what a
publisher usually hopes will be a lengthy period of sales. Up until very
recently, readers’ interest in the subject matter of a book was a moving
target for publishers: would it survive, or grow, between the time of
commitment and the time of publication?
Now there are a number of moving targets relating to the industry itself.
Most books signed up today will be published in two to three years. By then,
will a publisher be able to sell a substantial number of copies as e-books
or files for printing on demand? How will these sales affect those of the
printed edition? Will the intermediary structure expected to support the
project — reviewers, information sources, libraries, book clubs and
booksellers — be around when the book comes out? And will books that have
global markets be translated more often, thanks to technology? And, if they
are, will publishers still be financing and controlling the translation
Publishers in 2001 face uncertainty every time they sign up a book, but even
more so when they make infrastructure investments. How much effort should go
into digital content and rights management? How much investment should go
into developing new delivery forms and channels? Is this exactly the wrong
time to invest in more warehouse space, or exactly the right time to invest
in print-on-demand capability in the warehouse?
There are some changes, now becoming obvious, that publishers must make to
the 20th-century ways of doing business. Processes need to be digital from
commissioning, through development, through delivery. Mastery of
e-book and print-on-demand technology, and development of business models
that include them, are a must. There must be a rights database and a content
database. How quickly legacy contracts need to go into the database or how
aggressively a house must digitise its backlist assets are still contentious
subjects (and ³all right now² is almost never the correct answer). But
re-engineering processes so that all new deals and projects are managed in a
digital way is a clear and present challenge to every publisher.
Other decisions can be made only by understanding the
changing environment of 21st-century publishing. We cannot claim to know the
answers, but we see five Big Questions that every publisher should be
constantly asking in order to understand how each publishing business will
have to change :
- Does disintermediation really represent an opportunity or a threat all
along the publishing value chain?
- How quickly will the world move to reading content on a screen?
- Will the proliferation of free Internet content compromise the ability of
publishers and authors to get paid in the future the way they are at
- How will libraries change in the next two to five years?
- What will be the effect of technology and government action on translation
markets?The answers to these questions reveal what a publisher needs to know about
the business environment we will have in the years to come.
None of these questions is answerable in a definitive way; what anybody
seeking the “truth” about them must accept is the most informed possible
speculation. But the speculation should be based on solid facts.
To develop an intellectual platform that would generate the most useful
speculation, I have spent the better part of the past year discussing these
big questions with decision-makers from all strands of the publishing and
Also included in these conversations were colleagues from the Frankfurt Book
Fair and from the leading trade publications: Publishers Weekly, The
Bookseller, Library Journal, Inside and the German Börsenblatt. Together, we
have created the underpinning for the Frankfurt ‘Big Questions’ Conference,
which will take place on 8th October, the day before the formal opening of
the 2001 Frankfurt Book Fair.
In the course of the past year, many visions have become illusions and many
bright ideas have failed. But the Big Questions we started exploring early
in 2001 remain as vexing as ever, and as critical to any publisher’s future
success. The executives, academics, entrepreneurs and industry visionaries
who will talk about them (along with our convention delegates) will at least
have the research and insight of the industry’s best global observers as the
starting point for their informed speculation.