What we learned

When we look back at 2012, it will be seen as the year when we gained a little understanding of a big change, and began to figure out the patterns of tomorrow’s book business. As Dame Gail Rebuck told Random House staff in her end of year letter—“Change is coming; but we know and understand change and we have a clear vision for our future.” Let’s look at some of the lessons.

In the social world, what you appear to be can be as important as the reality. In appearing to collude over the move to agency, publishers risked impairing their “good-guy” image, even if the logic behind the shift was solid. The settlements may not prove fatal, but the damage to reputations could haunt the industry into 2013. We cannot always be on the side of the angels, but we can do more to bring those angels with us as we evolve.
Systems have not replaced discoverability. I heard 18 months ago that “meta-data was the new bookseller”, and while there is a neat logic to the soundbite it just isn’t true. There are good ways of discovering books online, through recommendations, or social networks, but the best ways remain offline—in book groups, in bookshops and in libraries.

The e-book market is not growing in a linear way. This is not music, or DVDs. It is not an either/or shift in habit. What e-book data there is showsthat e-book readers buy print books, and that some books are not bought digitally. We are in the foothills of this, with e-ink devices a replica of the printed book: but the take-up of vanilla e-books offers a hint. Readers like reading.

Everything changes, and that applies also to Amazon.

As Stephen Page has said, there is a “riot of cross-dressing”, and in some cases roles are being lost, usurped, or redefined. We cannot expect this to halt in 2013, but there is also an opportunity. Kobo, Foyles, Penguin Random House, are all examples of companies that will define 2013 by the actions begun earlier. Amazon may find this goes the other way, as the poacher looks increasingly like a gatekeeper.

Next year will be tough, but authors and readers still need each other and those in-between connecting the dots. There will be more change, more disruption, more hits and misses. It may even get more difficult, as digital takes more away from print than it adds back. But in 12 months’ time, we will know even more. See you in January for the start of it.