This post was originally published on the Frankfurt Bookfair blog on 11th August. Reposted here with kind permission from its author, Huw Alexander, Rights & Digital Sales Manager for SAGE in London.
EveryThink: What do you think, Huw Alexander?
We think that e-books are a playground for publishers – and not a necessary evil. What do you think, Huw Alexander?
‘…there is a widespread impression that e-book people are the jet-setters of the publishing business. The truth is that ebook publishing may be described as long stretches of stupefying tedium punctuated by moments of numbing monotony…’
The above words of the eponymous Richard Curtis Associates inNew Yorkare, by a significant margin, my favourite quote about the world of ebooks. Ever. My liking for this pithy outlook may suggest that I see ebooks as a necessary evil. This is far from the truth. I’m simply stupefyingly tedious and numbingly monotonous.
I like ebooks. I like my job. Ebooks pay my bills. So my bank likes ebooks too. It’s a happy relationship. This is not to say that ebooks are plain sailing. There is a certain amount of loss involved in working with ebooks. Loss of hair, for instance. Loss of eyesight. Even a loss of the will to live at times. But I still wake up in the morning thinking about where ebooks will take me today. Ebooks provide opportunities for innovation that place them firmly in the realm of the playground rather than in the land of evil but there is plenty of room for heartache. Achieving the balancing act between innovation and fear is the key to developing a successful ebook programme.
In order to explore the reasoning behind this it’s first necessary to embark on a short trip through time. Cue ‘journeying through time’ music…
A Brief History of the Publishing Industry in 400 characters…
Ancient times: Handwritten scrolls and copyists. Togas optional.
Dark Ages: No-one writes or reads as it’s too dark.
Middle Ages: A German guy invents the printing press and singlehandedly invigorates theFrankfurttourism industry in October forever.
Modern times: Paperbacks are invented so that people can read whilst travelling. Chiropractors unhappy.
Now: The Internet causes all hell to break loose, bringing about the end of publishing forever. As we know it.
Publishers had been happily going about their business safe in the knowledge that nothing, especially their dress-sense, has changed for centuries. Then someone decided it would be a good idea to network the world and make bits and bytes the currency of the information age. The dawn of digital has been a rude awakening and unfortunately there are some heavy-sleeping publishers who are still slumbering. But for others it has been an opportunity to develop new markets, experiment with new products and expand their brand far beyond the reach of traditional print publishing.
Fear and Loathing in the e-book World…
The arrival of the digital age has prompted a succession of Twitter-friendly articles declaring that ‘Print is dead’ and ‘Publishing is dead’ and ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine with my ebook)’. Digital has created a sense of fear amongst some publishers as they stand on their battlements peering out across a sea of piracy, cannibalization of print sales and low pricing whilst giant technology companies such as Amazon, Google and Apple divide and conquer all before them. To some the future of the industry looks bleak and we may as well pen ‘The End’ and close the book on publishing.
But it is time to get off the shelf. Benjamin Franklin once remarked that ‘When you are finished changing, you are finished’ and never a truer word was spoken about the current state of the publishing industry. Today’s marketplace is all about relevance and about meeting customer expectation. Publishers have for too long been at arm’s length from their customer base – dependent upon third parties, primarily bookstores, to provide the customer service. This is not to say this model is entirely flawed but the provision of ebooks allows publishers so much more interaction with their readership and so many more opportunities to learn and improve their content.
The issue in the current publishing climate is not one of if you should do ebooks, it is when and how and now and now. The tipping point has been reached and those not embarking on developing a digital programme will find themselves left behind in the dust. It may be Wild West time in the ebook world but prospecting favours the pioneers.
Love in a Time of Metadata…
Pioneers need not be risk-takers though. It is entirely feasible to develop a low-cost, simple, effective and profitable digital strategy without recourse to breaking the bank or selling the less interesting aspects of your body on the black market. The emergence of viable mobile devices such as the Kindle, iPad and smartphones has led to a buoyant market for the sale of ebooks and for academic publishers the library market is growing significantly.
Ebook development is now essential to any forward thinking publisher and fortunately there is even a 12-step plan for navigating a way through the playground: How I learnt to stop worrying and love ebooks.
Rights: Make sure you have the electronic rights. Sounds simple but author contracts sometimes pre-date the digital age and did you really clear all the third-party material in that book on the Viaducts of Ancient Rome? Contracts are tedious but they are the foundation of any successful ebook programme. Get this right and you will be halfway there.
Research: Interrogate your market. What do your customers actually want? How can you reach them? What format is right for your content? Which vendors work for you and your customers?
Infrastructure: Have you got the structure in place to manage an ebook programme? Do you have the files? Do you have a policy with regard to eISBN allocation? Do you have an XML workflow in place? Is quality assurance something you think about or hope to avoid?
Curate: Publishers need to broaden their horizons and think less about simply creating a book and more about creating an experience around that book and emphasizing and drawing out its quality. The printed page can now come alive with media and bring a whole new layer of learning and enjoyment.
Experiment: As Samuel Beckett would say ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. The digital space is ripe for experimentation. The plethora of business models and applications for reaching customers cries out for innovation. Dipping a toe in the water is not expensive, can be lucrative and must be tried.
Metadata: Data about data. I can hear the people at the back gently snoozing already. But metadata is critical on so many levels. Identification. Discoverability. Marketing. Reporting. Everything in the ebook world depends on metadata – it’s the lifeblood of your books. Nurture it. Covet it. Keep it clean.
Partners: Publishing has traditionally been very inward looking but now is the time to develop relationships with those smartest guys in the room. Tech companies and vendors are springing up everywhere and digital publishing should be seen as a start-up company not as business as usual. Partners are your weapons of choice. Choose carefully, whether it be a conversion house or a sales partner. These guys will be your friends and help you chart the stormy waters of the digital age.
Marketing: It’s very easy to distribute your books into cyberspace and forget about them – depending on third parties to sell your content. Ebooks allow you to direct sell and develop relationships with your customer base. And make sure you work with your vendors to help them help you.
User Experience: Don’t send your files off into the world without first reading them yourself. It is early days in the ebook world and it is easy to see when you purchase content. Layout and typo issues abound and customers are not likely to come back for more if they have not enjoyed reading your ebook. Test, test and then test again. The ultimate question is ‘Would you pay your hard-earned for this book?’
DRM & Piracy: Piracy exists. It won’t ever go away. There will always be a kid in a bedroom somewhere who will crack the encryption and post it to the internet. Don’t lock up your content with draconian countermeasures and make legitimate users seek, shall we say, alternative means of obtaining access. They’ve paid for it, let them use it and enjoy it.
Information: Keep informed. Every week there is new acronym to learn, a new business model to investigate and a new partner to woo. Channel social media, hit the conference road and read the industry news sources.
Examine: Remember the ‘Fail better’ scenario? Always examine the results of trials and experiments. Track usage and sales. Tease out trends and learn from them. Hone your processes and hire good people to smooth the path to digital success.
A Glimpse into the playground of tomorrow…
It’s nigh on impossible to predict the future but it always fun so let’s try. The shift to digital will continue apace. Print will not die any time soon – the majority of most publishers revenue is still wedded to print and surveys still suggest that print is preferable to ebooks amongst customers. But publishers need to develop robust digital programmes in order to meet the future demands of all their customers. The ability to serve up content in the form demanded on a 24/7 basis will be integral to the future relevance of publishers. There is no escaping this fact – the market will guide the future of publishing.
The future will also be based on usage statistics. Usage will guide editorial decisions as ebooks will allow publishers to analyze exactly how their content is consumed. Once the technology is in place usage stats will capture sales down to an infinitesimal level as customers, especially in the academic sphere, interact with content in the way in which they want. Patron-driven access will become the norm and will develop in tandem with razor-sharp analytics.
There will be further consolidation within the industry – but this time it will be technology companies either buying publishers or licensing their content in new and varied ways. Publishers will need to be prepared to make smart decisions in order to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by digital and the access to international markets it opens up or they will risk the fate of the dinosaurs.
Despite my favourite quote at the beginning of this piece it would be wrong of me to suggest that the ebook world does not contain a hint of glamour. My time is filled with models (albeit business ones), drinks (predominantly caffeine-based) and international travel (always in economy). Ebooks can be tedious but they will be integral to the future of publishing. However, I do look forward to the time that they are simply called ‘books’.
By 2030 we may even be beaming books via WiFi direct into our brains. Whatever does happen the digital space will always be a playground of innovation and opportunity. It will never be a necessary evil. Unless publishing itself becomes a necessary evil.”
You can see Huw Alexander at the Seminar “12 Steps to Digital Success” on October 14, 2011, 9:30 – 11:00 am, Frankfurt Book Fair, Hall 4.C, Room Entente. The seminar is part of the Professional Programme “Best Practice / New Ideas”.
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