Somebody please tell me the path to survival for the illustrated book business
My eye was caught at the end of last week by a story in The Bookseller that acknowledged that ebooks just haven’t worked for illustrated books. It appears that the publishers of illustrated books they spoke to for the piece think that situation is temporary. The Managing Director of Thames & Hudson, Jamie Camplin, is quoted as saying “you have to make a very clear distinction between the situation now and the situation in five years time.” And Dorling Kindersley CEO John Duhigg emphasized that his team is being kept up to date with digital workflows and innovations, so they can “be there with the right product at the right time.”
But maybe, except for an opportunity that will arise here and there, for illustrated book publishers trying to exploit the same creative development across both print and digital, there won’t ever be a “right time”. There certainly is no guarantee there will be.
Duhigg characterized what he called “the black and white digital business” (but which I think would more accurately be described as “the immersive reading digital business”) as “flowing along” while admitting it is “very different” for the companies with “fully-illustrated lists”.
That’s accurate. Expecting that to change could well be wishful thinking.
Illustrated books in printed form depend on bookstores more than novels and biographies do. If the value in a book is in its visual presentation, then you might want to look at it before buying it, and the view you’d get of it online might not be doing justice to what you’d see if you held the book in your hands.
Camplin sees that optimistically. He has an aggressively modernist view of what will happen with novels. “I don’t see why print should survive at all for fiction, beyond the odd bibliophile” which he apparently believes could open up more bookstore display space for illustrated books.
But if the buyers of Patterson and Evanovich and 50 Shades of Gray aren’t visiting bookstores to make those purchases anymore, will there be any traffic to look at the illustrated books, however prominently they are displayed?
This problem has been nagging at me for a while. Books are illustrated for two reasons: beauty or explanatory purpose, more the latter than the former. When they’re illustrated to better explain, such as showing you how to knit a stitch or make a candle or a piece of jewelry, wouldn’t a video be a better option most of the time? If the illustration is a map, isn’t it likely that being able to manage overlays digitally (for the movement of the weather or the troops on the battlefield or the adjustment of borders over time) will deliver more clarity than whatever stills were in the book?
Of course, these things can be done by book publishers for the digital versions. But they require creating or licensing and then integrating new content assets and rethinking and redesigning the presentation. And that’s not even accounting for the work involved in adjusting the content to multiple screen sizes, a problem that just keeps getting more challenging as more different tablet and phone screen sizes are introduced.
One major publisher I know really endeavors to make ebooks of all their new title output, which includes some imprints that do a lot of illustrated books. Like everybody else, they frequently see ebook sales of 50% and more of their fiction, and 25% or more on immersive-reading non-fiction. But the illustrated books are in the single-digit percentages most of the time, with some of the more successful categories in the very low double-digits.
This is in the US — two years or more after the launch of the iPad and Nook Color and nearly a year after the launch of the Kindle Fire. Poor sales of illustrated ebooks can no longer be attributed to a lack of devices that can deliver them effectively.
And the ubiquity of these highly-capable devices brings its own new set of headaches. We were discussing the recent Bowker reporting that more people are reading ebooks on multi-function devices than on dedicated e-ink readers with our favorite expert on reading habit data, Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group. He concurs and says that, as a result, the ebook consumption per reader threatens to go down.
Hildick-Smith points out that the tablet is a sea change in the history of content and consumption. Up until now, each content form had its own delivery mechanism. Records and cassettes and even MP3s were delivered through devices made just for them, just like the programming on TV and radio. Books on Kindles and Nooks replicated that paradigm. When you turned on your Kindle, you were as buried in your book as you were when it was in paper.
This is no longer true. If the book you’re reading on an iPad or Kindle Fire or Nexus 7 gets boring or you get tired of it, you can switch to a movie, The New York Times, your favorite song, or Angry Birds with the same device. Or the chime on your iPhone will ring taking you out of your book to answer an email.
For the publisher of novels, this means the book is competing with other media that would accomplish a different purpose. For the publisher of illustrated books, the book also must compete with media accomplishing the same purpose (how many new instructional videos of knitting stitches or jewelry-making techniques are posted to YouTube every day?) But they can’t do it for the same price, because that price is free.
So the illustrated book publisher not only has to learn how to make videos (a skill they were never previously required to possess), they also have to come up with a business model that enables their videos to be part of a priced commercial product, competing with legions of them that are free. And they have to finance a substantial creative component that isn’t contributing value to the print version at all.
We know our industry is changing radically. Different business models are challenged in different ways. Most of our time on this blog, perhaps too much of it, is spent contemplating how that affects the biggest publishers and the biggest books. There’s a reason for that. Big books have always driven the consumer book business and that seems to be more true than ever, not less.
But the challenge for — very specifically — “general illustrated book publishing” seems much more severe. The big publishers I’ve talked to apparently see that. Nobody has been explicit about it, but it sure feels like they can see a profitable path to navigate digital change with immersive reading books but not with illustrated ones.
I’ve also talked to mostly-illustrated publishers. Nobody says “you’re wrong, Mike. This is how we’re going to continue succeeding using our content-development skills, marketing capabilities, and talent network when bookstore shelf space is insignificant.” A couple of them have said “I don’t agree” without specifics. Most admit that they see the problem but haven’t yet figured out a solution.
There may not be one.
Camplin of Thames & Hudson is quoted at the end of The Bookseller piece saying, “I think it’s sort of a waste of money to assume the market is there [at the moment]; however, it would be foolish to say it will be this way forever.”
It might be equally foolish to say, or bet, that it won’t.
Of course, there is one strategy that can work: a vertical one. If you’re using illustrated book output to build a community of the interested, then you’ll presumably be able to sell them other things (software, live events, databases, services) when illustrated books are past their sell-by date. That’s the Osprey and F+W strategy and you can see sense in it because books are only part, and almost certainly a diminishing percentage, of their sales portfolio.
In fact, it is companies like these that might use technology like Ron Martinez’s Aerbook Maker tools and be able to use their books as a springboard to digital products with commercial value. They’ll probably also want to discover fotoLibra’s “advanceImages” scheme for micropayment of royalties instead of advance licensing fees for photographs. What Aerbook and fotoLibra offer can reduce the cost of creating an illustrated or enhanced ebook by 80%. That would certainly help.
It’s been obvious to me for a long time that managing the cost side of enhanced ebook creation is critical, which is why I was a sucker for the original Blio pitch in December of 2009.
For any publisher who claims a vertical strategy is their solution, the metrics to track are the sales they make of things other than books and the sales they make outside of bookstores. That is: track what is sustainable and has the potential to grow, not what is bound to shrink.
Relevant piece of anecdata: I remember being told by somebody at Wiley a couple of years ago that a large portfolio of photographs added measurable revenue on their travel sites. For very little cost, they could make a selection of photographs available for browsing. People clicked through them pulling up a new ad each time they did. That’s the “illustrated book publishing” of the future, but it starts with having the audience.