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Makinson confident as publishers face digital "flux"
22.06.11 | Philip Jones
Publishers will play a bigger and more complicated role, but only if the link between the author and reader is "reconfigured", was among the conclusions from a panel of chief executives at Publishers Launch London.
John Makinson, chairman and chief executive of Penguin Group, said he felt more confident about the retail side of the business now than he had three months ago, partly as a result of the acquisition of Waterstone's by Russian Alexander Mamut, but also because of Barnes & Noble's success with its Nook e-reader.
He said: "The overall book market, [both] physical and digital, will be resilient, and Amazon's share will grow. Digital content will continue to grow at the expense of physical content, so you would expect that brick and mortar booksellers will have to adapt, like Barnes & Noble, or it will shrink. But that doesn't mean it is terminal."
However, Jonny Geller, agent at Curtis Brown, challenged the publishers on the panel to rethink their business models. "Everything we thought about how we do business is not right anymore, the whole chain from author to reader has to be reconfigured. All authors want is to get their books out to readers, and sometimes publishers and retailers get in the way of that." He pointed to the "collapse" in commercial women's fiction, which Geller blamed on cover decisions made at the behest of Sainsbury's. He said: "We are in a flux, and, people don't know what they are talking about, we should admit it and get together."
Geller said his authors were now starting to ask the question "what are publishers doing?". He said: "If publishers are still offering 25% of net receipts, then authors might just say, I'll do it myself. If my authors create their own website, then what is the publisher doing? If I can't speak to a publicist except during the three weeks of publication, then what is the publisher doing? If the publisher can't get the book into stores, then what is the publisher doing?"
But Makinson and Faber chief executive Stephen Page said the trade still managed to drive huge numbers of bestsellers, with Makinson pointing out that publishers were getting more information about readers than ever before, but sometimes lacked the skills to analyse it.
Makinson said: "The role of the publisher gets bigger and more complicated. The things that go away because of digital are the things that publishers never had to do anyway, print books, store them and freight them. But if we are to monitor piracy, understand global copyright, and understand metadata, then we are performing a larger service than before, but in a much more competitive environment. The role of the publisher becomes more complicated, but not less relevant."
Page added: "We have to explain to authors, for the first time in a long time, the value we offer. We are all running incredibly fast and it's hard to spend the time communicating that and you can forget about the remote position of the author."
Earlier in the day Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, urged publishers to take control of the conversation around digital. He said: "If people hear often enough that this or that sector is dying or is obsolescent they will stop listening to it, stop understanding it; and critically they will become indifferent to its fate. So it is vital that we drive the debate forward on the real ground, on the positive ground, and be constantly talking about how publishing is embracing technology and building future business models around it."
Addressing a question from the floor Makinson revealed that he had had conversations with the chancellor of the exchequer over VAT on e-books, but that the industry did not want to press the case too far in case it led to tax being raised on all book product. "We are anxious about harmonisation," he said. He said he had made the point that publishers were effectively subsidising certain "west-coast retailers" who paid no tax since they were registered in Luxembourg, but said he had been met by "stony silence".