I spoke last Thursday at the 2nd annual IfBookThen conference in Milan staged by the Italian ebook retailer Bookrepublic. On Friday, I teamed up with the UK literary agent David Miller and Penguin US’s Molly Barton, formerly an editor but now the company’s Global Digital Director at a “workshop” session staged by the same organizers. Molly is also the empresario of the new author services site from Penguin for genre fiction called Book Country.
We got a bit of a cultural education. The Thursday conference was attended by about 300 delegates from across Italian publishing. Judging by appearances, this seemed to be a pretty senior crowd; there were very few people there in their 20s. That makes sense. The same thing is true at Digital Book World and Tools of Change and for the Publishers Launch events Michael Cader and I deliver. These conferences cost a fair amount and require a lot of time away from the office (a full day for IBT and for most PLC events, two or three days for DBW and TOC.) Junior staff can’t afford the money and can’t get the time.
But there was one distinct difference between the Italian audience and the audiences I’ve seen at those other events or at others I recall speaking at in Canada, Brazil, the UK, and Denmark. The Italian audience hardly asked any questions! I got one on Thursday. Most of the speakers that day got none. I found this baffling.
At lunch, I was standing at a round “rest your plate of food” station with four local attendees. They all spoke English well. (Simultaneous translation in both directions was available for anybody who needed it.) I said, “you in the audience need to talk more! Where are the questions?” One woman theorized that the problem was that Italians were just too polite; they were reluctant to call attention to themselves by asking questions. (Milan is in the industrial North of Italy. Most of the time I’ve spent in Italy has been in the South — Rome and Capri — and I certainly wouldn’t have characterized the wonderful culture down there as overly polite. Maybe the North is very different.) I agreed that questions are sometimes used as a platform to make a speech and that wasn’t welcome when it happened. But, still…
The event on Friday being billed as a “workshop” had a smaller, and not quite so senior, audience. There were perhaps 80 people. The focus was the changes in the relationship between publishers and agents. Molly explained Book Country, what Penguin had in mind when they launched it, and how it was an acknowledgment of the change in circumstances and choices for authors. David had been provided a list of questions solicited from attendees in advance. My job was to provide “context”, a sense of the environment in which these publisher-and-agent negotiations were taking place.
We brainstormed with the organizers how to encourage more participation. An alternate explanation for the reticence we’d experienced came from an Italian agent, who thought that people weren’t asking questions because their bosses were in the room. Well, it’s another theory…
I followed a suggestion, starting my talk at the workshop by asking the audience to self-identify a bit. I asked editors, agents, those who worked with straight text, those who worked with illustrated books serially to raise their hands. I made the point that I was giving people practice at putting their hands up; we were all hoping that they’d continue to do so throughout the show. I actually got a few questions. So did Molly.
But David had a different technique that, coincidentally or not, appeared more effective. He waved a box of fine British chocolate-covered mints in front of the crowd and promised a wrapped piece of candy to each person who asked a question. (When I asked David a question myself from the seat alongside him on the dais, he even gave a piece of candy to me!) Whether it was to get the chocolates or because David’s presentation and expertise evoked more active interest than Molly’s or mine, or because participation begets participation, he had a successfully interactive two hours with the audience. It was impressive.
The one question I did get the first day actually led to a provocative exchange that I think opened some eyes in the audience. I was asked how big I expected the Italian ebook business to get and how fast. I asked what percentage of Italian book sales were ebooks now. I was told “2%.” I asked what it had been a year ago. I was told “about 0.7%.” If those numbers were right (they could well not be, but I’ll bet they’re right on the growth rate), the percentage tripled.
“Is there any reason you’d expect it to slow down in 2012 or 2013?” I asked the audience. The consensus was “no.” I pointed out that one more tripling would take them to 6% and another after that would be 18%, which is not far from what the US number is now. (If you believe the starting percentage was low, then add one more year to get to 18%.)
The next day, David Miller talked about an author he represents whose percentage of ebook sales had gone from 1% to 11% in one year! I made the point to the audience that this might be the single most important fact they’d have learned in two days to illustrate the rate at which things can change.
Last year at the same IBT event, there seemed to be very widespread skepticism that Italy had much to worry about from ebooks. Then Amazon introduced the Kindle this past December, about 60 days ago. Suddenly, the skeptics are in hibernation.
Apparently the same thing has happened in Brazil since I went there to speak 18 months ago and found a lot of resistance to the idea that ebooks would spread or that bookstores would suffer. The Brazilians I’ve talked to since, and the non-Brazilians who are planning expansion of book and ebook sales to new markets, all see that a robust growth of the ebook market in Brazil is around the corner.
It always seemed understandable to me why ebook takeup, and its companion disruptor, online transactions for print, first got traction in the US. You can’t beat a market of 300 million people with one language, one currency, and one set of commercial regulations as a place to launch a new delivery mechanism for media. We see the dampening effect in Europe of high taxes (VAT) on ebooks and the relatively small language silos that exist side by side. We see the challenges to online ordering of print as well as to ebooks in less affluent parts of some countries, including Italy and Brazil, presented by the lack of capital for investment in infrastructure. Many people can’t afford readers for ebooks. Many can’t conveniently get to the Internet to order hard goods and, even if they can, the ubiquitous parcel delivery infrastructure our Internet merchants depend on doesn’t exist the way we’re used to it. And many people don’t have credit cards. All these factors slow things down.
The hard goods delivery bottleneck is difficult to address, but the readers are getting cheaper and the mobile phone has proven to be an effective banking-and-credit mechanism where none had existed before. I find it hard to believe that highly differential rates of screen reading to overall reading between countries is a permanent condition. Cell phones are proliferating everywhere. Printing and distributing books is, ultimately, a lot more expensive than delivering them to a cell phone. Readers are getting much cheaper; the Kindle costs about 80% less than it was when it was introduced four-plus years ago.
I think in time we’ll all end up in pretty much the same place in our ratio of ebooks to printed ones for straight text reading. If that’s going to be the case in a few years, then the places that haven’t been experiencing rapid change so far are in for a roller-coaster ride in the years to come that will make what we’ve lived through in the US and UK seem very tame by comparison.
I suspect that at IfBookThen 2013, the audience will feel moved to ask a lot of questions and whatever cultural barriers there were this year will be overcome by the urgency of adjusting to an environment which signals that cultural barriers are made to be broken.