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FutureBook: publishers must look outward

Leading publishing figures stressed the importance of becoming more outward looking and consumer focused at the plenary session of The Bookseller's Futurebook Conference, held in London yesterday (3rd December). However Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie and Pottermore c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne expressed starkly opposed views on Digital Rights Management.

Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson (pictured) said the publisher was working to break down its old methods of working and focus the whole company on "reader engagement". He said: "We are probably only 10% of the way there and what we will look like in five years time we don't know." HarperCollins m.d. Simon Johnson identified the main areas publishers need to develop as changing publisher behaviour and structure, becoming more entrepreneurial and less hierarchical, and introducing new knowledge into the industry through hiring from sectors such as technology, marketing and analytics. 

Sourcebooks chief executive Dominique Raccah said collaboration was going to continue to be key, saying: "We are going to work with the partner that delivers the best experience for the product we are working on." She said as the big players, such as Apple, begin to reveal their strategies, it was important to identify the partner that would bring "most value to reader and authors" in each particular instance.

Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie said consolidation might not bring as many changes as anticipated, using the different companies that exist within Hachette to illustrate how a publisher can be "both small and big at the same time". Johnson added the publisher with the winning strategy will most probably be the "most nimble and fastest rather than the biggest-it might be the biggest but it might not be".

Johnson argued: "We really haven't started to see what digital really means for publishers. We have just used digital as a delivery channel. The product and platforms are going to change a lot. It is behoven on us to disrupt what product really is."

Meanwhile, in a strong exchange of views on copyright protection and DRM, the panel, chaired by The Bookseller editor Philip Jones, thrashed out the value of protecting copyright over the need to experiment with new models.

Pottermore c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne and Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson talked from their experiences of selling DRM-free products, and  Publishers Association president, Little, Brown c.e.o. Ursula Mackenzie, argued that publishers must make works more accessible but through respecting the existing copyright structure.

Redmayne admitted he had been "terrified" when releasing the DRM-free Harry Potter e-books, but that piracy of the books was down 25% now compared with the week before the release. He said there was an opportunity for publishers to create a "liberating" retail experience for digital customers, particularly in  underdeveloped markets. He said: "Consumers are irritated by being in one ecosystem. The opportunity [is there] for publishers to build a platform that can support e-books bought for any device, in any language."

Forbes Watson said Pan Macmillan's decision to go DRM-free on its Tor e-books had not led to an increase in piracy. He added the move was part of Pan Mac's wider policy of experimentation: "We know what our readers and SFF authors want, and we know because we are not the biggest, we have to test the market if we are going to get an advantage. We don't have a theological attachment to anything other than generation emotion in our readership. We haven't seen any increase in piracy since going DRM free." He said the company had not yet decided whether it would replicate the move with other brands or imprints, but hinted that it was a possibility.

But Mackenzie said there were a lot of "siren voices nibbling away at the edge of copyright", including Google, and said: "The more we can engage as an industry in a means of making [content] more accessible but within the structure of copyright then the more likely we are to not find ourselves in the place we don't want to be which is having all these publishing exceptions [to copyright]." She stressed: "Authors need to earn a living."

Answering a question from the floor, the panel agreed that the main lesson to be learnt from Amazon is how to engage directly with consumers. Forbes Watson also said there was a lesson to be learned from Amazon in how it acts as a competitor and a partner at the same time.