Shift to digital will hit revenue, says Barnsley

Publishers are unlikely to be able to replace the revenues lost in the shift from print to e-books unless they can significantly grow volume sales, according to HarperCollins c.e.o. Victoria Barnsley.

In a keynote address this morning (10th May) to open a new conference, the World e-Reading Congress, held in London, Barnsley said she put the 7% drop in the retail value of paperback fiction so far this year "almost entirely" down to the sale of e-books, despite her belief that combined volume sales of print and e-books had probably increased.

"The signs are that consumers expect e-books to be priced considerably lower than physical books. There's no easier way to drive an e-book up the charts than by massive price reductions," she said. Whereas in a bricks and mortar environment other factors, like the look and feel of books and recommendations from booksellers, can influence choice, most of these factors are stripped away in an online environment, Barnsley argued. "So, not surprisingly, brand and price become the deciding factors."

At what level the price of e-books will stabilise, the consumer will decide, she added. "And only then will we know if there is a viable e-book business."

Barnsley commended the agency retail model as well as price-differentiated digital products, from short chunks to enhanced e-books, and new subscription and lending business models, as ways to extract maximum value from publishers' content.

Most important of all, publishers need to listen to consumers, an area in which the industry has lagged far behind others, she added. "We need to look at consumers not merely as purchasers of content, but we need to maximise their value as brand  champions and buzz agents for our books. And we need to develop products—call them books if you will—where they can interact directly with authors."