DBW: publishers 'should learn from self-publishers on pricing'

Publishers need to look to how self-published authors price their e-books, improve the quality of their digital texts, and can no longer avoid selling direct to the consumer, according to discussions held on the first day of Digital Book World.

Conference chair Mike Shatzkin said “constant monitoring [of pricing] is called for and publishers need to be at least as adventurous in pricing as authors are on their own". One of the biggest challenges, everybody knows, will be to keep display and sales alive in bricks and mortar, yet ironically, publishers are “shrinking their sales forces just when they need to be on the ground finding new accounts"—in the widest bricks and mortar sense—“to replace the ones that are disappearing".

Shatzkin was one of many first-day speakers to assert that it is becoming harder and harder for publishers to avoid direct sales: customers are “the coin of the realm". On another front, “every book" needs to have effort expended on metadata enhancement, and quality control still needs to be better on many e-books, even “plain-vanilla" ones.

A moment that grabbed everybody's attention was when Shatzkin asked if audio will become part of an enhanced e-book or a regular e-book instead of a separate product altogether. He advised publishers to get themselves into the events business, and—referring to Random UK's recent move to break short stories out of anthologies for individual digital sales—asked why that isn't being done universally. He summed up the current situation this way: “there were definitely easier times to be in publishing, but never more exciting or stimulating times".

Forrester Research's James McQuivey definitely spoke to the times not being so easy. His latest survey of 74 executives tapped from the biggest, many mid-tier and some smaller publishers, revealed that “optimism is waning".  Last year 89% of executives were optimistic about the digital transformation; in the new survey that figure decreased to 82%. In the previous survey 74% felt readers would be better off; the current figure is 61%. Last year 66% felt more people will be reading books; the equivalent this year is 47%. And whereas last year 51% felt their companies would be stronger, only 28% do now.

Currently 25 million people in the US own an e-reader; 34 million have a tablet; and at least eight million homes have two tablets. Within publishing companies, organising for the digital transformation is “coming along nicely": 75% have an executive level person responsible for digital; 63% report digital skills are integrated into departments rather than centralised; 69% expect to increase digital staffing this year.

Yet McQuivey pointed out that publishers' “love affair with apps is over": 51% surveyed said that the cost is too high and just 15% believe that apps represent a significant revenue opportunity.

Although 54% of publishers predict that print sales will decrease in 2012, only 5% believe that decrease will be “significant". E-book sales are predicted to increase 130% overall this year and Amazon is expected to take about 41% of them. To succeed in the future, “publishers must have direct consumer relationships" McQuivey said, echoing Shatzkin's earlier assertion.