I headed from Sydney to New York as part of the Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship (an award administered by the Australian Publishers Association for an Australian editor to spend ten weeks with US publishers). I went to O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference last week and will spend another nine weeks visiting and learning from publishers in the biggest English-language market. My aim, which I now realise is bafflingly broad, is to learn how publishers are adapting to the constant changes in their markets, how they are innovating, what is working and what is not. I am particularly interested in one of the most challenging aspects of the digital revolution: how non-fiction and colour books work – or not – in digital formats on the new devices available. If Australia is a year or two behind the US in the upheavals in our industry, my being here provides, I hope, a chance to peek through the looking-glass and bring back a deeper understanding of how we might go about things.
Well, TOC certainly gave me a wealth of issues to think about. I had been informed that this was a conference that ‘told publishers what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear’, and that it certainly did. At TOC there is a wonderful lack of fusty old we’ve-always-done-it-that-way publishing talk. Here, at least for the first day of workshops, the nerds ruled and you’d better brush up your HTML5 skills so that you can keep up with the conversation. I was inspired by the many discussions about agile methodology being employed in digital-publishing start-ups, or even in the publishing process of a single book within a large house. I now understood more deeply that digital books are never really finished the way print books are. This ability to update at low cost offers great opportunities for non-fiction titles that we haven’t yet really begun to explore. I can think of many authors in Australia who would leap at the opportunity to be published this way. And plenty of others who would have a melt-down were it even suggested to them.
The presentation to a standing-room-only crowd by Michael Tamblyn from Kobo was a highlight of TOC for me. While non-fiction titles account for only a small proportion of the ebooks currently sold, this is a section of the market we can expect to see grow significantly and quickly. There is plenty of opportunity for Australian publishers to sell more backlist non-fiction titles as ebooks. ‘We could sell it if we had it,’ he said of the Australian market specifically.
We can expect, in the not-too-distant future, tablets to be on the market that better meet children’s needs, so we had better be ready with quality ebook editions to fill them. Junko Yokota, from National Louis University in Chicago, ran a fascinating session on what works well in which format for kids’ books, putting the case that publishers and editors should choose very carefully those stories best suited to tablet formats and leave well alone the picture books whose very essence requires the print format. There is a fine line between an enhanced ebook for children and a game that distracts and doesn’t aid, indeed, may hinder, a child’s comprehension of the story. (I know that I am reluctant to let my two- and five-year-old spend too much time with even some ebooks and apps rated highly by the Kirkus Reviews, because the kids interact with them as though they were games.) Yokota gave examples of digital children’s books that exploited the platform well and aided rather than detracted from a child’s ability to comprehend, including Sesame Street’s The Monster at the End of this Book.
In his presentation called Breaking the Page, Peter Meyers went further, making the point that simply porting or even enhancing print books for the iPad is like using a Ferrari to get to the grocery shop. What is required is a total reimagining of the content available in the expansive canvas of the tablet device. He cited apps that have done this effectively and several that have been left wanting. Stand-outs were The Elements by Touch Press; The History of Jazz, created by 955 Dreams; London Unfurled by Pan Macmillan; and the music app Aweditorium by thesixtyone.
Of course we are still left with the glaring problem of how to market these products. And I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard the word ‘discoverability’ mentioned. At TOC I became much more conscious of one of the other seismic shifts that is taking place for publishers across the globe, something we have heard a lot about recently but I suspect will take us a while to fully comprehend. We are no longer simply B2B businesses. We need to know our readers directly, preferably have on file their email addresses and go wherever they are congregating online. And all this is much simpler to do in niche vertical channels with strong brands. A session moderated by Bethanne Patrick (aka The BookMaven), with the community manager from Chronicle Books and the director of German social media agency bilandia, offered insightful and entertaining anecdotes about how they have done this successfully.
Attending TOC at the start of my fellowship journey was the perfect eye-opening, stimulating and at times and mind-wrenching introduction to the US publishing scene. I have a feeling that for every question I ask as part of this project, I’ll get ten in response. And that might be just about the most accurate sign of the times right now.
Jane Morrow has worked in the publishing industry for 12 years as an editor, managing editor and rights manager at Penguin and HarperCollins in Australia and at Elwin Street in the UK. She is the recipient of the 2011–12 Beatrice Davis Editorial Fellowship. You can follow the blog about her fellowship trip here. And on Twitter @morrowism.
For a more detailed overview of data available for the Australian book market, take a look at Anna Maguire’s post from December 2011.