The fact that Publishers Launch Conferences will stage half-a-dozen or more events before our next big multi-day Digital Book World blowout next January doesn’t change the DBW calendar. Now is the time of year when we have to start thinking about what the big issues will be at the turn of the year so we can start planning the program. As we did last year, we’ll be calling a meeting of our Conference Council (the 2012 group is currently in formation) at the end of June to brainstorm the topics and our approach to covering them.
It’s my job to anticipate now where we’ll be in nine months. What aspects of digital change will be most important to us when we convene again at the New York Sheraton and have a couple dozen sessions to explore the issues? This post exposes the current state of my thinking on the subject; I am shamelessly using the opportunity to engage the very smart audience gathered here to help me refine these thoughts and point out what I may have missed. I count 15 discrete subjects here (some of which can certainly be combined) which have made my list so far. (I’ve italicized them so you can count along with me; they don’t all get their own paragraph.)
The biggest subject of all, of course, is “global.” The reality that every publisher anywhere is now able to reach any reader everywhere with no local presence, no inventory barriers, and many of the same intermediaries that deliver content to local customers is an industry-changer that will take a long time to deliver its full effects. Territorial rights allocation is only one of the many long-time conventions of publishing that will be challenged by the reality of global. It looks like the biggest publishers — those with local organizations in many countries — have the biggest challenge to adjust to the new global reality. We see this now as we’re putting together panels for our BEA and London events on the first biggest opportunity of global: the new ease of selling books in any language and of any origin to the biggest ebook market developed so far: ours in the United States.
Perhaps the second biggest subject is one we’ve discussed in this space for a long time: “vertical.” Even the most avowedly “general” of the big “general trade” houses are beginning to recognize the urgency of direct contact with individual customers. Once that becomes an objective, it quickly becomes apparent that audiences cluster around subjects or genres: verticals. We anticipate some dramatic reorganizing of the imprint, publishing, and marketing structures of the major houses as they develop their audience-centricity. There might even be enough development along those lines to warrant conversation about it at DBW 2012.
Two more categories of change will be in the “sales models” and “product models” publishers will employ, neither of which have had anything but the most minor adjustments since the mass-market paperback became a force just after World War II. We’d expect somebody big to try a subscription model, a la O’Reilly’s Safari or what we get with cable TV, for the consumer market sometime soon, maybe before next January. (In fact, a James Patterson Book Club, which is a sort-of new subscription model, was announced just today!) And the new Amazon Singles program for shorter-than-book-length content is accelerating the awareness of publishers and authors that the length requirements for printed books do not extend to digital ones.
All of this will lead inexorably to more “ebook first” imprints, divisions, and initiatives. I’d guess that by January, several (if not all) of the major houses will have “programs” offering content for sale which is too brief to be delivered as a bound book. We first reported on a program of this kind from Harlequin at BISG’s Making Information Pay conference several years ago. It was an outlier then. It’s more of a pioneer now. This week we heard that Hachette has a short fiction program in its Orbit imprint. Last week in London we talked with friends at Pan Macmillan about a short ebook program they created at the end of last year to capitalize on the many Kindles and iPads that were delivered as presents for Christmas. (Of course, we’re putting that on the program for our London conference; the coordination challenges within an established operation to pull off something like this are not trivial.)
Part and parcel of verticality is direct audience contact and retention. When we wrote a couple of posts last summer about direct marketing techniques publishers had to make part of their standard operations, we were a bit early to get the true trade publishers’ attention. By next January, every publisher’s consumer emailing list will be a component of its marketing effort. A part of this work, of course, is effective use of social media, a subject publishers keep learning more about and which we’ll certainly try to cover — in our way, which is looking for scale and replicability — in January.
Metadata is a subject that just doesn’t go away. It is disappointing to hear from industry bodies and retailers that many publishers haven’t gotten the core metadata totally under control yet. We covered the basics at Digital Book World 2011; in 2012 I hope we’ll be talking about things like rationalizing the BIC (British) and BISG (US) subject codes, which have developed separately to address each market’s idiosyncrasies but which need to be harmonized to enable the full potential of globalization.
Over the next two years, I’m expecting the most disruptive change to take place in children’s book publishing and illustrated book publishing. When the catalyst for ereading was the Amazon Kindle, as it was starting in late 2007, straight text worked but not much else did. Now that Barnes & Noble’s Color Nook and the iPad are devices of choice for millions of people, illustrated material and rich color can be delivered as well as text. In the children’s book area, there have been a slew of new entrants, probably led by big publishing veteran Rick Richter’s Ruckus Media. The illustrated book business hasn’t really surfaced in a big way yet, but it almost certainly will by next January’s Digital Book World. I’d expect it to be a major topic of conversation since illustrated books are far more complex to “convert” and present the opportunity to enhance in ways that may soon become requirements.
The recent news from O’Reilly that they are using Ingram’s services to be able to deliver printed books without holding stock signals another new topic that will be of widespread interest: building a virtual inventory infrastructure. This topic also came up in a discussion at London Book Fair with Sara Lloyd and James Long of Pan Macmillan, one company we’ve found that is very consciously preparing for a 50% ebook world. Decentralizing their print production to reduce inventory and manufacture closer to the point of delivery is very much on their radar screen. (In fact, the whole question of how publishers have to adjust their organizations and overheads to cope with a 50% or more digital book marketplace is one we’re featuring at our Publishers Launch show in London.)
As I write this, it has been nearly a month since we’ve had a lot of conversation about authors doing their own publishing, but we got very familiar with the names Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and Barry Eisler in recent weeks because they’re doing just that. That trend can do nothing but accelerate between now and next January.
This is requiring agents to reconsider their own business models. We’re at the dawn of an era where agents will be publishers themselves and business advisors, not wholly dependent for their revenue on their ability to get advances and royalties from publishers. The first Digital Book World conference in 2010 was the first digital publishing conference to feature agents prominently in the conversation and we talked then about how business models might change. This January I expect we’ll be able to stage some conversation about how new models are working out for those who have tried them. (One of the agents we’ve put on the program at DBW is Scott Waxman, and his Diversion division doing ebooks has 20 books in the market and 10 more about to hit.)
And the last two subjects that we almost certainly should be discussing at DBW 2012 are the still-critical but diminishing segments of a publisher’s marketplace for printed books: brick-and-mortar retail locations, particularly bookstores and mass-merchants and the place so many people have discovered and acquired their reading material, the public library.
The decline of bookstores has been duly noted in The Shatzkin Files and, of course, the bankruptcy of Borders has everybody’s attention. Less well-publicized has been the decline of book sales in the mass merchants. (Tactics for arresting that slide will be the topic of a presentation by Tara Catogge of Charles Levy at BISG’s Making Information Pay conference, another one we get our hands dirty on, taking place on May 5.) As the brick channel for printed books continues its inevitable decline into insignificance, the state of play and the tactics to adjust to the loss of sales and, perhaps more important, merchandising exposure, will be a topic we’ll discuss again, as we did with independent bookstores and heads of sales departments last January.
And how to deal with libraries in the ebook world is a question vexing many publishers. Two of the Big Six just don’t sell them ebooks at all; one company has tried a number-of-loans limitation. We are intrigued by a solution pioneered by Bloomsbury in the UK — a “shelf” of books the library licenses a year at a time for online reading only. We aren’t covering it in our London show because we think most of the UK market is familiar with it but we’ll be putting it on the agenda for Digital Book World next January.
Next week I’ll give you a preview of the first two Publishers Launch Conferences programs: for international visitors to BEA and the Americans who work with them (on May 25) and, with the Publishers Association, our program for UK publishers (on June 21.)