BookExpo America, trade publishing’s industry-wide gathering, just completed what must be considered another successful year at Javits Center last week. Attendance was pretty much what it had been last year and the lines for autographs on the convention floor certainly gave off the feeling of enthusiasm and excitement that publishers want to see.
Convention roundups are best delivered by people like Laura Hazard Owen and my Publishers Launch partner, Michael Cader, who make a real effort to take in the breadth of what is going on. I, on the other hand, have my meetings and chats with friends that seem to fill up the days so my impression of the overall is just that: an impression. An ad hoc impression.
One thing that seems pretty clear is that my forecast for the future of BEA from 2009 was unduly pesssimistic. I like to get to what I think is the heart of the matter, but in this case I was overly simplistic. I got it right that bookstores would continue to decline but I got it wrong to think that would doom BEA within three or four years. Although other retailers stock books more than they used to, there are nowhere near the number of opportunities for publishers to talk to customers that there were even in 2009. But publishers are that much more interested in talking to any source of shelf space that they can and, in fact, non-book retailers often aren’t hit by the field sales forces.
So there continues to be sufficient reason for publishers to exhibit to keep them coming (albeit with smaller stands and less staff than the big guys used to bring). And that brings a whole slew of other players, including the ever evolving set of companies with digital propositions looking to get the attention of publishers large and small.
Aside from our Publishers Launch conference, which made lots of news and was an altogether satisfying event from an organizer’s perspective with a number of really fabulous presentations, I had a handful of takeaways from BEA 2012.
1. Metadata is still a mess. For a BEA panel outside Publishers Launch, we reunited the incredibly engaging team of Newlin and Toolan to discuss metadata. Bill Newlin of Avalon, a division of Perseus, and Fran Toolan, the “Chief Igniter” (CEO) of Firebrand Technologies, know it all about metadata and are both passionate and extremely entertaining in discussing it. I heard from somebody who saw the session or talked to them afterwards that they might be getting bored with presenting on the subject. I checked in with Bill afterwards and he said he just had to freshen up the presentation; it remained important and he wouldn’t stop.
Then I talked to Karina Luke, who had spoken about metadata for us in London last year when she was at Penguin and who now is in charge of Book Industry Communication (BIC), the BISG equivalent in the UK which has, among its responsibilities, the monitoring of industry complicance with metadata standards and certifying publishers for competence. “Is this really still a problem?” I asked her. “Yes.” “Even among the big publishers? Don’t they have it all straight?” “No.”
Since metadata has, as Karina makes clear, literally replaced catalogs and sales reps as the most important and mission-critical source of information about a publisher’s books, this is a bit shocking. We had Jonathan Nowell of Bookscan do a presentation at Pub Launch Frankfurt last year which demonstrated pretty emphatically the relationship between metadata and sales. He’s repeated the presentation, first for us at Digital Book World, and then under other auspices. Apparently not enough publishers have seen it.
2. Still, nobody reports selling illustrated books effectively as ebooks. I have asked the question over and over of every illustrated book publisher I know. One Big Six house that is doing ebooks for all the titles in one of their divisions with a lot of illustrated titles, told me that most of the time sales of the digital edition are in the single digit percentages of the total sale. Very successful illustrated ebooks might do 15% of the print sale. For immersive reading, that percentage is a big multiple of that.
Illustrated books as ebooks have not yet demonstrated that they will work in the marketplace.
3. Still, nobody reports a formula that can deliver repeated commercial success with enhanced ebooks. We all know about a few instances that have worked, but, so far, no publisher has come up with a formula to make enhanced ebooks commercially sound propositions.
We introduced Ron Martinez’s “Aerbook Maker”, a cloud-based technology that makes it easy to build complex ebooks and apps and cuts the cost of doing so dramatically. Martinez’s technology will definitely reduce the cost of experimentation and allow a lot more titles to hit the marketplace. Maybe that can jump-start a business both by making the costs go down and by making it easier for the creative people, including the author, to engage with the technology.
There certainly isn’t a business yet.
4. Publishers still haven’t focused on creating rights databases (which I identified as the biggest problem of the decade over a year ago.) This is a knotty problem for publishers. Sales of books are, in general, flat or down. Sales of rights, particularly in small bits and pieces (chunks), are going up. But without rights databases, the cost of those transactions can often eat the all revenue.
Exactly what to do is an extremely complex problem for any house to tackle and requires some high-level consideration, planning, and resource allocation. But I think it is obvious that the correction must begin with properly databasing the rights in current contracts as they are signed. Even this is apparently not happening yet in most places, according to the “support” industry that would help publishers change this.
Meanwhile, the “in” baskets in the permissions departments will continue to be piled higher and the number of unattended=to opportunities that might have been really remunerative or helped with the marketing of the book will be a subject to be considered at some future time.
(I recall now that my wife, Martha Moran, increased sales by some huge multiple in the 15 months she was doing special sales for Crown in the late 1970s. Her singular innovation was to create a set of form letters that allowed her to answer every request within a couple of days. The impact was immediate. It might well be the same when some publisher creates such a policy for its Rights and Permissions requests.)
5. The problems that distributors are facing with ebooks in the public library market are being duplicated in the K-12 library market. People in that space tell us that they suffer from the same concerns on the part of publishers that keep some players out of the public library market. Is there any way to offer ebooks in school libraries that won’t cannibalize sales of multiple copies in school settings? That’s as much a conundrum as the public library one, but it gets a lot less attention from the public or the publishers.
6. The slowdown in ebook share growth got a bit of conversation. Did I believe it was real? Sure, it is. And it is probably a very natural state of things. Before ebook reader prices plummeted, which they have really done in the past year or two, the readers only made real economic sense to people who read a lot of books. The first mover advantage Amazon gained with Kindle (which was the first device that was easy to load and also hooked up to a lot of titles) was huge because they self-selected the heaviest readers with their pricing. I’ve never seen figures that would prove it, but I’ll bet Nook also has found that ebooks sold per new device is declining from what they saw at first.
Another reason for this, besides the bias of heavy readers to be early adopters, is that so many devices being sold now are replacements. There is a tendency to “load up” on a new device. That’s not necessary on a replacement, particularly a replacement within the same retail ecosystem. So device sales have lost their power as a leading indicator of ebook share growth.
7. The most stimulating and exciting conversation I had at BEA was with Marcello Vena, the director of digital business at RCS Libri, a large book publishing group that owns Rizzoli and Fabbri Editori. RCS Libri is part of RCS Mediagroup, one of the largest EU media holding companies. They own a lot of media businesses including newspapers, magazines, radio, and online advertising.
RCS Libri is doing a large number of innovative things with ebooks, both illustrated and straight text. They’ve done an illustrated ebook on museums that has been a huge success in Italy and will be delivered in English by Rizzoli. They’re starting two new vertical imprints dedicated to genre series in Italian: Rizzoli Max for thrillers from Rizzoli and Fabbri Editori Life for romance novels from Fabbri Editori. All titles will be issued simulaneously as inexpensive hardcovers and ebooks starting this week. The initial list of the thriller series includes a book by my favorite self-published author, John Locke.
RCS is thinking globally and also innovating locally, including in the way they manage promotional pricing of their digital products online. Of course, what’s stimulating for me will probably be stimulating for an audience as well, so I’ve booked Marcello Vena to speak at the Publishers Launch Conference in Frankfurt on October 8.
I turned 65 during BEA. People older than I am are getting harder to find at industry events. But I really enjoyed seeing two of them at BEA.
Martin Levin is in his 90s. He went to law school after he retired from his publishing career, which concluded after he was chairman of Times Mirror Publishing, which then owned Abrams and New American Library. For the past two decades he has done M&A with the law firm Cowan, Liebowitz, and Latman. Martin greeted me with a big smile saying how happy he was that my career has gone so well. But he pointed out, accurately, “you’re not nearly as smart as your father.” Then he recalled some of Dad’s accomplishments, including putting in a vendor-managed inventory program at Doubleday in the 1950s.
Joe Friedman was a new sales rep at Doubleday when that program was instituted. He went on to a career leading sales at Penguin and then working for the ABA. He’s 76 now and hasn’t been in the business for a decade or more. He came in to Manhattan from Long Island on two separate days just “to see if anybody remembers” who he is. I was glad to see him. I wish I’d gotten his email address. I hope he found a few others with whom to discuss old times.