The idea of an “Ebook Tipping Point” panel for Digital Book World arose when I wrote a blogpost last August on the occasion of the regular monthly release of the IDPF’s ebook sales figures. It was clear then that very substantial percentages of the sale of new narrative fiction and non-fiction were going to move through ebook channels and this post raised the point that this would be disruptive right after Dominque Raccah and Sourcebooks started last Fall’s cascade of strategic moves by publishers to try to slow things down, at least for Kindle.
In October, really writing about the same situation I predicted that major publishers would be challenged to cope with the problem of de-scaling.
When I wrote the August post, I was in the early stages of organizing the program for Digital Book World and I decided to put together the “Ebook Tipping Point” panel. I knew that current C-level executives, focused as they must be on making numbers for this quarter and this year, not to mention always having to be aware of the impact their statements could have on their companies, wouldn’t be the right panelists. So I just decided to recruit the four savviest people I knew — about ebook publishing, about the finances of publishing houses, and about the ecosystem publishers live in — to discuss the topic with me on stage.
Yesterday that panel — Ken Brooks of Cengage; Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch; Larry Kirshbaum, ex-TimeWarner Books CEO and currently a literary agent; and Evan Schnittman of Oxford University Press — met in my office for a preliminary conversation to help me formulate the questions that will trigger the discussions.
Ken Brooks is my go-to person for all things related to ebooks and digital production. He the SVP, Global Production & Manufacturing Services at Cengage Learning. Before that, Ken created and sold a company called Publishing Dimensions that did digital format conversions in the early ebook days. He’s run warehouses and other operations for Bantam and Simon & Schuster and he even had a brief stint setting up an early attempt at ebook distribution for BN.com ten years ago.
Michael Cader is the creator Publishers Lunch and Publishers Marketplace, the new nexus for conversation and information about the publishing business, which he developed from scratch starting with a free email newsletter less than ten years ago. Before that, he was a book packager. Cader is the single person who knows more about book publishing — the people, the deals, the business practices, the view of the business from the standpoint of the investment community — than anybody else I’ve ever met.
Larry Kirshbaum turned over the reins at TimeWarner Publishing to David Young three years ago, just before the company was sold to Hachette. He was known for his eye for bestsellers and his ability to make them work. Since then, he’s been a literary agent. Kirshbaum knows exactly what it is like to run a big publishing company; he did it for more than two decades.
Evan Schnittman is Vice President, Business Development & Rights at Oxford University Press. In that role, Evan combines the zeal and focus of a sales executive with targets to hit with the vision of a strategic digital thinker, a very unusual combination. Oxford is a university press, of course, not a trade house, but they have a trade list big enough to make them real players in that sandbox. Evan knows and understands trade, but he has the objectivity and vision of somebody who is not entirely dependent on that business. He’s also a really entertaining and insightful blogger.
One scorecard worth keeping is this: Brooks, Kirshbaum, and I were all sure ten years ago that ebooks would happen much faster than they did. Cader was sure they wouldn’t. Michael has been the hardest among us to persuade that ebooks would substantially displace print anytime soon.
We had a rollicking two hour conversation that would have entertained anybody who could have heard it. I am not going to steal the panel’s thunder by revealing much about it except to say that there was a strong consensus that big publisher overheads are going to have to shrink dramatically, and soon. Michael Cader is particularly articulate — and particularly experienced — about the point that legacy businesses carry legacy cost structures that handicap them making a transition to a new paradigm. He lived that advantage as the David that slew the Goliath of PW.
So I awoke this morning to get the news in my mailbox that Simon & Schuster has redesigned its sales coverage to be “more phone”. Cheaper. Less overhead. But also (likely) less effective and (certainly) less differentiated from what any small publisher based anywhere can do.
So what distinguishes the big publishers from their competition are the capabilities of “scale.” And the albatross for big publishers going forward is the cost of “scale.” This is a tough box to get out of.
I think some eyes are going to be opened when this panel takes the stage on Wednesday, January 27.
I am getting increasingly excited about the 2-day Digital Book World conference coming up January 26-27. Now that the work of recruiting nearly 100 speakers and moderators (and, boy, do we have GREAT moderators!) is done, I am able to take some satisfaction from the body of work. (Take a look.) I am also really appreciative of the great marketing job that has been done by our partners in this endeavor, F+W Media. Just about everybody really is going to be there. Are you?