One of the key building blocks of my career was the six years I spent working on a program called “Publishing in the 21st Century” with Mark Bide and a team at Vista Computer Services (now Publishing Technologies) led by then-Chairman Denis Bennett, John Wicker (now at Tata Consulting Services), and Martyn Daniels (now at Value-Chain International). Every year we picked a digital change theme: organizational structure, content to context, etc., and did some research around it. Then we’d present our findings in a White Paper and conferences.
I think it was Martyn who observed that our exercise was like “looking into the same house through different windows.” That is, the subject was really always the same — digital change in publishing — but taking a different slant on it each time would deliver different observations and insights.
And so it continues. The subject of digital change in publishing continues to prove an endlessly fascinating one for observation, analysis, and speculation. And each time you think about it from a different point of view, you learn something new seeing what you have seen before.
This entire experience was critical to my own intellectual development for two reasons: it gave me subsidized (paid-for) time explicitly devoted to thinking about the future and it gave me a lot of smart people, inside Vista and among publishers and other stakeholders whom we interviewed in our research, to discuss with and learn from.
The topic of digital change outside the English-speaking world was placed on my radar in 2008 when I was invited to speak in Copenhagen to Danish booksellers and publishers. It was already the case that a large percentage of the books sold in Denmark were in English. (I have recently heard it said anecdotally that sales of English-language books in Denmark have climbed to 25% of the total!) I observed at the time that digital disruption, which would make books more ubiquitously available outside their home territories, would result in increased intrusion by books in English. It seemed to me, at first, that booksellers would be better able to adapt to this change than publishers because booksellers are not nearly as tethered to their language as publishers are.
I got another chance to focus on how things look outside the US and the English-speaking world when I spoke at the Sao Paolo Book Fair last August. What slapped me in the face there (a sort of “d’uh, I shoulda known that” moment) was the paucity of titles available in epub format in Portuguese. That meant that Portuguese-language ebooks were PDFs, which are not reflowable and very clumsy to read on a device. What is obvious immediately is that holds back the ebook market in Brazil. What is obvious on second thought is that those Brazilians who want to read on devices and who can read in English will find much more of what they want to read in our language than in their own.
Now, with the US having reached a point that ebook sales are substantial, providing meaningful revenue, threatening mortal damage to the print book distribution infrastructure, and upsetting the publishing value chain we’ve known for a century, more or less, the rest of the world knows it is going to follow suit. The UK, frankly as much because they operate in English as for any other reason, is beginning to catch up noticeably. The rest of the world isn’t so noticeably yet, but we all expect they will begin to very soon. And that means disruptive change is coming to the book businesses of the world and they’re looking to the US experience to understand the nature of that change and what to do to prepare for it.
It is clear already that 2011 is going to be a year for me to be discussing the US experience and trying to discern its global implications with publishers and booksellers and agents all over the world. Some of the plans in that regard aren’t quite ready to be announced (although they will be very shortly) but the first such opportunity will be at the IfBookThen conference in Milan where I’ll be speaking on February 3.
I got an insight (another “d’uh” moment) talking to a French sales executive about the local French ebook market a couple of months ago. He said he’d be urging French ebook retailers to make sure to carry titles in English. Why? Because Amazon, Apple, and Google (and he didn’t mention Kobo, but he could have) would all be serving titles in all languages to French consumers. If the local retailers don’t compete that way, they’ll quickly be bypassed by consumers.
So the reality that everybody in the world has to deal with is that English-language title availability in epub dwarfs that of all other languages and that we’re also exporting a developed infrastructure that can make those titles available everywhere and very quickly.
All of these players (and Kobo, Canada-based with a worldwide base of investors) are sourcing titles in all languages, have multi-device platforms, and are each developing a separate and siloed content-focused app market. Standing on the sidelines (internationally; they’re a US-only play at the moment) with many of the same capabilities is Barnes & Noble, who could decide at any moment to be a global player and would have a big infrastructure and title base from which to do it. Copia, which has been our client, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, and Sony also have many of the necessary components in place.
And all of them have designs on getting some content exclusively if they can.
What I’ll tell the conference-goers at IfBookThen in Milan is what the local booksellers and publishers should be thinking about as digital change in their neck of the woods accelerates.
The local retailers must, as the French sales executive said, endeavor to carry titles in all languages, particularly English. (There are tools from the US infrastructure available to enable that too, particularly from our clients at Ingram and our longtime friends at Overdrive.) They have to deliver multi-device functionality: an easy ability to shop and consume ebook product on all of the most popular devices. They have to keep up with features like lending and notes and internal dictionaries. They have to deliver impeccable customer service. And for those retailers that have brick-and-mortar stores, they should learn the lesson from Barnes & Noble’s delivery of Nook that retail locations are very effective places to introduce readers to ereading devices.
Retailers based locally have some other advantages to employ against the global players. They can provide local propositions for content and marketing of use to libraries and institutions. They can be better partners for local authors and local brands. They can maximize their knowledge of local content silos, such as IP that is developed by governments and local corporations and not-for-profits. And, presuming they are more successful than the global players at harvesting content in their local language, they can garner important revenue by selling to their own-language customers globally.
The challenges and opportunites are somewhat different for publishers. I am looking forward to discussing those, as well as going into more detail about the American experience and what lessons can be drawn from it, when I get to Milan in ten days.
In the meantime, next Tuesday and Wednesday we’ll be looking at this from the other end of the telescope at Digital Book World. We’ll have a conversation with a European member of the IDPF board, Cristina Mussinelli, about the emerging market for English-language ebooks in Europe. We’ll have a session moderated by agent Cullen Stanley with an American, a French, and a British publisher talking about how rights carve-ups might be changing going forward. We’ll have presentations from both Amazon and Google. And, perhaps most important of all, we’ll have separate sessions on core and enhanced metadata moderated by Scott Lubeck of BISG, along with a conversation between Lubeck and consultant Michael Cairns about ebook identifiers. Metadata that is accurate and robust is the key foundation for publishers with digital ambitions anywhere in the world.
All publishers are global now. All book retailers are global now. The publishers and retailers who embrace that reality soonest will have the best chance to be around the longest.