A digital consensus?

A digital consensus?

What does the industry think of its digital future? Are we more or less confident? How do we read? Who do we buy from? When will sales of digital books overtake sales of print books? Who wins?

The Bookseller’s Digital Census is the annual tracker of how the book business is managing the shift to a digital future. It is conducted each year before the annual FutureBook Conference, with the findings the backdrop to the discussions that take place at the event. This year, all attendees at FutureBook14 will receive a free PDF copy of the full 25-page report.

We are investing a lot of time and energy into new innovative solutions to bring our books to readers, but frankly I think they are happy buying them from Amazon and Kobo
Comment: Digital Census

So how are we doing? The big news is that there is increased confidence that publishing has a role in this digital future, with the slowdown in growth of (and expectations for) e-book sales allowing everyone to take a breather. And yet, the changes are not behind us. The big tech companies are no less dominant than they were; issues around pricing, DRM and royalties are no closer to being resolved; authors are no more satisfied; and booksellers are no less challenged.

Most worrying, only one in seven of our respondents think publishing is ready for whatever is around that virtual corner, and when asked if publishers are investing enough in finding out “what comes next” few were confident. “Not enough,” appears to have been a typical response, alongside its opposite: “The new business models are not at all clear—we don’t want to throw good money after bad.” Therein lies the dichotomy at the heart of every 21st century publishing business: we must do more, and change again—but how?

Moreover, in a constantly shifting world one thing does remain unchallenged: the dominance of Amazon. Most of us buy our e-books from the Seattle giant, and it is the platform most used by self-published writers. While the shift to tablets and smartphones suggests that other booksellers may soon start nipping at its heels, this is only slowly happening. For the first time in five years, the iPad has usurped the Kindle as the favoured reading device for the digital literati—and yet Amazon is where we buy the content.

Declining e-book growth should be seen as an expected natural slowing . . .[and] also a more nuanced appreciation among readers for the different attributes of ‘e’ and ‘p’
Comment: Digital Census

Perhaps we should be less concerned. As one respondent noted, publishers ought to worry less about becoming distributors and worry more about the books, and their authors. As the Digital Census’ author Tom Holman writes, “authors are rarely entirely satisfied with their publishers’ efforts to sell books—and the digital revolution seems to have cooled their enthusiasm further”. In short, self-published authors are more satisfied with their own self-publishing efforts—despite the comparatively low sales many of them have achieved to date—than traditionally published writers are with their own publishers’ efforts.

Despite their largely successful transition, publishers will feel that they cannot win—and it is sign of how much the ground has shifted that authors feel they have the options and knowledge to speak out. “I appreciate they’re in a difficult position, but I don’t think they’re nearly responsive or strategic enough,” said one writer. Of traditional publishing, another wrote that it was “exciting, enjoyable, frustrating and ultimately disappointing”. Ouch!

It is also true, how ready publishers are now to acknowledge this. At the Society of Young Publishers Conference, held this past weekend, Little, Brown chief executive Ursula Mackenzie talked about how publishers had raised their game. Amazon’s entrance into publishing, as well as the proliferation of tools to help self-published authors, mean that “each individual publisher must strive to offer both value for money and a sort of home”, she said. Publishing, “often derided as old-fashioned, has embraced the transition to digital with notable success”, she added. While traditionally “the role of the publisher was meant to be invisible”, now it is important for publishers to say what they have to offer to both authors and to readers.

My publisher seems to have moved far more towards promoting e-books first in the past three years. my books are often offered for 99p, which i think is too low because it threatens sales in physical
Comment: Digital Census

Overall, the Census indicates that the sector remains an optimistic, vibrant, and changing environment. There is an increasing understanding that digital reading will shape (and even dominate) the future, but not at the expense of printed books. As Holman notes, more change is coming—but for those who can adapt quickly, there is everything to play for.

The Digital Census was completed by more than 1,000 respondents. You can read 10 key finding from the Census, here. The full 25-page Digital Census will be made available to all FutureBook delegates. Speakers include Tom Weldon, c.e.o of Penguin Random House, Carla Buzasi, founding editor of The Huffington Post UK, and author and Hailo head of product George Berkowski, among a packed line-up. For tickets, and programme, click here.

My thanks to the respondents who completed the questionnaire, and to the delegates at FutureBook 2014 for keeping the conversation going. Big thanks also to report author Tom Holman for crunching and compiling the data, and to The Bookseller’s features team Tom Tivnan and Felicity Wood, and its creative editor Danny Arter, for producing final version.