Publishers' Forum in Berlin: 'Reconstructing Publishing'

Publishers' Forum in Berlin: 'Reconstructing Publishing'

The 2015 edition of Publishers' Forum opened Monday (27th April) in Berlin with a determined tagline and programming to match: "How to Reconstruct Publishing: Competing Visions, Channels, and Audiences."

Produced by German publishing software maker Klopotek, the day was launched by welcoming comments from that company's Klaus-Peter Stegen and by Global e-Book co-author Rüdiger Wischenbart (pictured), who is in his first year as conference director, following a decade of leadership by Helmut von Berg.

In a bold setup to the two-day industry-facing event's context, the initial plenary session of some 260 attendees heard from the respected, traditionally published author and journalist Kathrin Passig about her experience in creating a digital book of her own based on editorial blog columns.

In working with the year-old German e-book platform Sobooks, Passig said, "Over the course of six days, we exchanged more than a hundred emails." But when she took the book to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) system, she said, the process required "15 minutes and one email." 

Passig's observations on comparative author interfaces at these digital platforms, in fact, reflected what she discovered about working with publishing houses' workflows, she said. She described -- without rancor but in unflinching, quiet detail -- how publishing-house processes, in her experience, run behind typical digital procedures in collaboration, parallel workflows, text processing, and documentation of standards. By the end of her 30-minute address. Passig had methodically established a framework for the day's sessions to follow, saying: "I know you’re all very nice people that are a pleasure to work with...[but] you are making things more difficult for us, you're making things more difficult for yourself, and you're giving Amazon another advantage."

Calling Passig's opener "an insightful and sober note," art publisher Dr. Rolf Grisebach of Thames and Hudson confirmed the underlying premise of the programme: "It looks like publishers don't like change so much," he said. "Maybe that's why we love so much what we do that it is hard to change."

"Once we realized that digital won't go away," Grisebach said, publishing worldwide began to face "a trend toward digitisation of the content, of marketing, sales [but] it's not a linear trend. It's very hard to predict the timing of the change, the extent of the change, and the proportion of print versus digital. And that creates more uncertainty...You do have to constantly adapt" strategic planning. 

By way of illustration, Grisebach noted that his company saw a drop from 19 to 13 percent of sales in chain bookstores in the UK between 2010 and 2014. Even more stark was the distance he reported between independent bookstore sales and sales online and by mail order: in 2014, UK independent stores were responsible for some 5 percent of Thames and Hudson sales, while online and mail order transactions accounted for some 38 percent. In one form of physical store, however, the museum bookshop, Grisebach described a positive trend toward something akin to "event buying" among museum-goers.

Thames and Hudson's main markets are found first in the UK, then in Continental Europe, then in the US, with special strength in Australia. But what he finds encouraging, Grisebach said, is that "the emerging economies, South America, the Asian economies, altogether is already about 20 percent of revenue for the company globally, and growing.

Growth was a key theme for Jacob Dalborg, as well, c.e.o. of Sweden's Bonnier, who described his company as one of six groups of a conglomerate originating in 1804, the publishing business dating back to 1837. "The first book published" by his company, Dalborg told the audience, "was Proof That Napoleon Never Existed. I don't know if it became that much of a bestseller."

"It is really only in books that we have a substantial operation outside the Nordic region," he said, in nine countries -- Sweden, Germany, Norway, the UK, Finland, France Australia, Poland, and the US. With a wide range of product including fiction, nonfiction, children's and juvenile, audiobooks, and comics, Bonnier has a number of book clubs "still alive and kicking," Dalborg said. He added, however, that a once-robust book club scene is harder now to maintain, "as a number of our members are literally dying and new recruitment is limited."

Total annual sales for Bonnier, Dalborg said, are around 725 million euros, and the company has some 3,000 employees. Literature's "emotional" place in the Bonnier corporation, he said, has made it the core interest of the company. And "the very essence of our existence is in story. We believe completely and utterly in the power of story and that there will always be a good and strong market for it," regardless of a digitally driven multiplicity of formats. 

If Dalborg's message was an upbeat faith in the salability of story, his note about the evolving audience was cautionary about "major changes in the behaviour of our readers." The competition is from other media, he told the forum, with products that appear to many to be "much more up-to-date and also cheaper" than books. Major change is impacting us and we need to adjust to the new reality. We must become better and more cost-efficient, otherwise customers will choose other products."

And the day's highlights to follow were reflections of that concept. 

In a panel discussion somewhat whimsically titled "Know Your Customer and Don't Be Afraid," Milan-based consultant Marcello Vena asserted that way to gain consumer understanding is to "discover, monitor, attract, and reward social" media, particularly through the activities online of authors. 

He was joined by MarkLogic's Matt Turner in calling for an intensification of the current focus on D2C, direct-to-consumer, activities. "Think about this as a core competency," Turner told the group, as "linkage between user and content...What happens when you start to see your customers?

"Maybe if you know your customer, you get to know yourself."

From readership to fandom

In an interesting jump toward a potential destination along these lines, Wischenbart gave the day's afternoon panel over to the idea of fandom. "Publishing Goes Pop" is one of his key thematic elements at this conference and this reporter was asked to chair a session of that title panelists Lance Fensterman of ReedPOP, the "con"-producing element of Reed Exhibitions; Andreas Gall of Red Bull Media House; Nathan Hull, formerly of Penguin and now with the Danish-based subscription service Mofibo; and Michael Bhaskar, who has founded London's new digital publishing company, Canelo, with Iain Millar and Nick Barreto. 

Fensterman, a former director of BookExpo America, the annual publishing trade show in New York City, is the architect of BookCon, which in its inaugural outing at last year's BEA, brought 10,000 members of the public to the Jacob Javits Center on the show's Saturday. So successful was that effort in 2014 that this year's BEA will have two days, May 30 and 31, of BookCon. Some 18,000 tickets already have been sold -- a turnout of 20,000 people is anticipated.

Describing fans as consumers who are driven by passion to frequently long-lived enthusiasm and repeat engagement, Fensterman made it clear that his key focus is on connecting consumers and content -- the E2E or "end to end" dynamic that means, he said, "If the fans are there, the brands will follow."

Fensterman describes publishers' initial reaction to the BookCon concept as "over my dead body," the trade-show tradition being that members of the public weren't to be involved. Now, the "con" element of the show is so impressive that ReedPOP works with publishers, he said, to guide them on how to programme author appearances for the crowds. "Don't excuse this as genre," Fensterman said. "These fans are rabid consumers of content."

In turn, Red Bull's Andreas Gall described "the right balance between the commercial and creativity" as the goal of his company's construct. The attempt is to transfuse the energy of Media House's "experimental DNA" into event projects, he said, "to give wings" to brand messages. 

Hull's message from Mofibo is that the data-sharing that his subscription service is doing with publishers in Denmark and Sweden can define and pinpoint the right reader-consumers for a potential fan-directed effort. "We know when readers are happy to be reading and when they prefer to use audio(books)," Hull said, "when they're reading, where they're sitting, how much they're willing to pay for a book...layer upon layer of data." 

And for his part, Canelo's Bhaskar signaled the key engine of the discussion as amplification: "It's about building audiences," he said, "a key change in what publishers do, why we exist. The meaning of publishing has changed and people like fans are critical to what it means to be a publisher today. 

"The way we look at books," Bhaskar said, "is when we sell a book and that author has six books in a series. That means addiction. All we want are books that grip the reader by story. And therein lies fandom. A fan is a reader who will download the rest of the series immediately."

Bhaskar delineated two criteria for what moves a reader to the status of fan: intensity and frequency, as in the depth of devotion to the content and repeat business as a consumer, coming back to buy more. "Fans can sell products and they can break products" through the potential for amplification of the Internet. "I think this is  part of a massive shift in how business is done."

Publishers' Forum continues today (28th April) in Berlin with speakers including Outsell's David Worlock, Ixxus' Steve Odart, and a forward-looking panel led by consultant Brian O'Leary.