Time called on enhanced e-books at LBF digital conference

Enhanced e-books are dead, discoverability is the most important issue facing e-book vendors, while pricing strategies should be measured against other digital content, not physical books. These were the key themes that emerged from the London Book Fair's Digital Conference, The Digital Now: Creating Lasting Value.

Faber chief executive Stephen Page chaired the event, which he said was taking place "at a time of rapid change, and a time of opportunity". He said reports that the book publisher was a "species about to become extinct" were "exaggerated and spurious". "We are not learning to be digital publishers, we are [already] in the digital market."

Evan Schnittman, Bloomsbury's m.d. of sales and marketing, was the only publisher among the keynotes, and he caused the widest stir, with his pronouncement that enhanced content for narrative-based e-books was dead in the water, illustrating the point with a slide that featured a gravestone featuring the words "Enhanced E-books and Apps: 2009 to 2011".

He said: "Enhanced will have an incredibly big future in education, but the idea of innovation in the narrative reading process is just a non-starter, I've been smug about this, and now I'm even smugger." Schnittman suggested that enhanced content was unnecessary since what sold e-books was the same as p-books. "If a book is a hit in p, it'll be a hit in e."

Schnittman's view was contested on Twitter by those following the conference tweets. "Sweeping generalisation he may regret," said one tweet. "Same old BS about all book-related apps dead in the water then . . ." Later in the day Faber's head of digital, Henry Volans responded: "Apps are a phenomenon of our age and are here to stay. I can't see why there won't be book apps. So the only question is do book publishers want to be in that world. And I can't see why they wouldn't want to be. It's as simple as that." But Schnittman was supported by other speakers, including Enders analyst Benedicte Evans, who said: "When cheap colour printing came in, people didn't decide you should have colour photos on each page, and the text in different coloured fonts."

Evans was also one of a number of speakers who stressed that "discoverability" was a key challenge for e-book vendors. "Buying books is a leisure activity, going into a bookshop without knowing what you want to buy is a leisure activity and not susceptible to an algorithm or a search box." Evans added that when and how people bought digital content was also important: "Print is consumed on the sofa, the same as other digital content, so it has to compete in a way it never did before."

Gordon Willoughby, Amazon's vice-president of Kindle Content Europe, echoed the view that where the customer was when they bought the content was crucial, arguing that the pricing of e-books had to take into account what that content was competing against, which could include a £3.49 film download and even cheaper digital music. "The point is people are shopping in a different environment, the pricing debate is not about physical vs digital, it is what are the other opportunities in the digital environment, it is different and needs to be treated differently. It is digital vs all the other options you have sitting on the sofa."

Willoughby also reiterated some of the points made at previous conferences by Amazon representatives, that putting books on the Kindle generated sales, particularly for series, while Kindle owners read more. Willoughby said that if a customer bought 10 physical books before Kindle, after Kindle, they bought 33 physical and Kindle titles—in 2009 that figure was 31, he said, "so it's moving in the right direction".

Schnittman added that "Kindle is the moment when you know you are going to have a robust market", but he stressed that other retailers had opportunities in the digital space, citing Barnes & Noble and its Nook device as the "proof".

Kobo's Michael Tamblyn was one of many speakers to remark on the pace of change. "It took 10 months [for Kobo] to get 1m users, 90 days to get the 2nd million, 14 days to get next million."

But there were repeated warnings that Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook could monopolise the routes to the customer in the digital world. Introducing one of the first new buzz terms at the conference, Michael Comish from BlinkBox, said "Apple is not your friend, neither is Facebook." He suggested "frenemy" was a better term. Schnittman added: "The digital marketplace is the centre of what we are doing, not the periphery. We need to look for a business model that enables control of the space."

New terms were also introduced by Tamblyn. Speaking of Kobo's customers he said dedicated e-readers were voracious e-book buyers, while "iPad Socialites" also bought regularly, but there was also the "Freegan", someone who only uses free e-books, described by Tamblyn as "worth basically nothing" to the retailer.