George Berkowski's FutureBook Conference podium warmer

George Berkowski's FutureBook Conference podium warmer

The Bookseller's The FutureBook 2014 Conference programme on 14th November promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead.

Keynote commentary will come from not only from author and entrepreneur George Berkowski, but also from WGSN's Carla Buzasi, and -- in conversation with Philip Jones -- Penguin Random House's Tom Weldon. 

Hurry to secure your seat, as sales will be closed on Tuesday.

One problem is that I don’t know what publishing is anymore. Publishing is Twitter, publishing is blogging, publishing is magazines and books. To me, this is just different formats to digest two things—information and entertainment—in different ways.

And that's one of the least provocative comments made by The FutureBook Conference keynote speaker George Berkowski in his Q&A with our Bookseller colleague Tom Tivnan. 

We want to look at the nature of some of the things Berkowski brings to the table as the conference nears. His comments may signal some of the best questions now for the smartest decision-makers ahead.

When everybody can publish. Everybody.

Even a comment that sounds as off-handed as "I don't know what publishing is anymore" has more weight than some might give it. From "blog-your-book" efforts in some writing programmes to the book-making efforts of major manufacturers as part of marketing schemes, publishing simply is no longer restricted to the publishers. And factor in the social-media contexts in which Berkowski rightly identifies publishing, as well, to get a vast, demanding range of possible venues and volumes of publishing: the opportunity is to leverage them with profitable effectiveness while avoiding the potential pitfalls of spreading messages and staffs' efforts too thin.

This is what Berkowski is getting at when he tells Tivnan:

I would argue that big publishers should have a mastery of those formats, and it should be done as a portfolio: a big chunk of information that is digested through different channels. The fact that book publishers don’t do things like magazines or run blog networks astounds me, because to me it’s very similar and it’s converging—and quickly. 

  • Can you bring to us an example of a setting in which a publishing entity is working well with that "portfolio" approach Berkowski describes?
  • Is there an arena in which you see a coherent dissemination of message across multiple channels with the right tailoring to each platform's nature and potential?

Do we understand when and how to 'cannibalise' the business?

Berkowski, a serial entrepreneur, has created ventures in manned spaceflight, online dating, transportation, and apps. His tech-based viewpoint is easily aligned with the digitally-driven dilemmas publishing faces now.

One thing a lot of tech companies are doing, and have accepted, is that they have to cannibalise their own businesses in a sort of an ongoing, predictable way. And there is a science to that...Publishers should be actively embracing every channel and hiring people who can help them model how this cannibalisation works. Cannibalisation is inevitable, so accept it, and build it into your practice. Build stuff and fail, then figure it out and learn from failure. 

To some degree, Berkowski could be referring to the sort of shared-wealth concepts of the Open Web, which come to the conference next week in commentary from Mozilla's Jennie Rose Halperin and others. In other instances, free and deeply discounted marketing approaches to sales and product positioning can come into play as what a traditional publishing model might, indeed, call "cannibalisation" of existing and even future assets. 

  • Can you see efforts in what we might call "fruitful cannibalisation" in publishing today?
  • What goes into a "science' of directing such efforts prudently and profitably? Is HarperCollins in the US cannibalising its inventory when it pilots with BitLit in Vancouver to test bundling free ebook copies of print books customers have bought? Are subscription services -- Oyster, Scribd, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited -- cannibalising the catalogs to pander to an "all  you can read" impetus born in film and television but unsuited for publishing?

How productive is the Battle of Seattle?

Whingeing that you have competitors everywhere and fighting them by using legal and other primitive means only serves to piss off users, authors and distributors, and is really not a sustainable strategy. 

Not much guessing needed on where this one might go:

  • How productive is it for publishing interests to look for legal means to battle retail developments they didn't foresee?
  • Is publishing giving up precious production and marketing energy in fighting with Amazon and other tech-enabled forces in such battles?
  • Is Berkowski right that users are pissed off (as authors and distributors clearly are) with these publisher-retailer skirmishes? How aware and reactive to them are the users, the consumers -- the readers?

Do we know our consumer yet?

The race to the consumer, of course, is at the heart of one of Berkowski's most direct answers. Tivnan asks him what most hinders publishers in the digital age? Berkowski's answer:

Distribution. A big publisher not having the ability to sell its own e-books direct is beyond ridiculous. If you are one of the Big Five and you don’t have a distribution channel that’s of any interest to readers, then you don’t have any relationship with your end user. Why am I [as an author] paying you 90% [in royalty splits]? Apple is only taking a 30% cut, and it is putting me in front of 100 million people. How many are you putting me in front of?

Berkowski's message isn't without hope, though he tends to deliver it with a tone of impatience familiar to many in the throes of the effort:

If you don’t have a relationship with the end user, you are going to be completely disintermediated. You will just become content acquirers and polishers...I don’t see anything particularly sustainable or interesting in what publishers are offering now. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can distribute, you can build relationships with the end user. Particularly in the internet age, when brands can be built up quickly. We’ve seen digital companies become massive brands in just one, two or three years.

  • How successful do you think current efforts at "D2C," direct-to-consumer, look at the moment? 
  • How much more can be done?
  • What's being overlooked or left untried today?

Where's the quickest potential in approaches to the readership by publishers?

Infrequently discussed: how long can publishing underpay?

What follows quickly here is some of Berkowski's most pointed commentary. It gets at both wages in publishing and at executive vision and corporate structure. This is the kind of material it almost certainly takes "outsiders," even near relatives like Berkowski, to bring to publishing's table.

On wages:

What it comes down to is that publishing is not a culture that has incentives for innovation. You attract the best people by giving them an opportunity to innovate, to transform an industry. Ultimately, you get the upside from them. Whether you make money immediately is not the relevant question, it’s having the possibility of doing so. You are not going to get that by paying people £28,000 a year. Any developer I know who is earning under £50,000 [per annum] is working on the cheap. So how does publishing’s business model support any kind of talent?

And on vision:

You don’t build stellar digital teams by hiring just one or two guys that want to be your head of digital. You need to make a step change. You need to rattle the cage a bit, and that takes some really gutsy thinking by the c.e.o. or leader. You have to get people on board.

  • Are publishing's wages overall getting better? Has this message been received or is the industry, in too many instances, still expecting its best heads to be "working on the cheap"?
  • And where do you see the kind of vision Berkowski is calling for, an executive suite able to discern and plot a course that creates company-wide buy-in and deep commitment to new programmes and mission? Where is it lacking? 

Are we still not stepping up the marketing response?

In some of the most direct of Berkowski's comments, he speaks to Tivnan as the author. His experience of a traditional publishing process is not, on the whole, encouraging. His book, which was released in September, is published by the Little, Brown imprint Piatkus, a Hachette holding. He tells Tivnan:

What publishing does very well is editorial. I’m not a great writer, but with a lot of polish and structuring, we’ve made a good product. My editor has been fantastic. The marketing? All the publisher has done is literally contacted a handful of bookstores, and did what they usually do. Even in terms of publicity and CRM [customer relationship management], it’s not very good. If a start-up was operating at that level, with those overheads and that level of execution, it would be dead in the water in three months.

Apparently, this marketing shortfall wasn't for lack of Berkowski asking for more, either:

We couldn’t even get a free version of the e-book out to reviewers, which was frustrating. You’re kidding me, right? This is 2014, not 1996.

Obviously, the world of "anecdata," of one author's experience or one book's path to market, is never what you want to use as paint for a wide brush. But Berkowski's commentary does hold significance because if any complaint has been loudly and widely leveled at traditional publishing, it's that marketing efforts there are inadequate and underfunded. His "You're kidding me?" won't strike many as out-of-line.

  • If this was his experience, and we must assume it was, then how representative can it be of the wider trends in sway at the moment? Is this "anecdata" or a valid and rightly leveled broadside?
  • Where are the instances that show opposing evidence? Certainly in Macmillan Picador's handling of Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven on the UK side (and that book, of course, is fiction, unlike Berkowski's book), there seems to be a forthright marketing effort of caring, invested corporate assertion, "anecdata" in the other direction. Where do the instances and examples pile highest? 

These and other questions are generated by Berkowski, whose address to the conference in a week at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster will surely set "the hallways" buzzing. 

Join us today and share your insights and perspectives on what this outspoken and proven producer is saying to publishing. How ready are we to hear to voices of "adjacent" industries when they talk to us about what they've seen and experienced? Are we too quick to claim that publishing is like no other field, and that nothing the digital dynamic produces in another camp should be taken onboard as a bellwether for books? Or can we hear meaningful and actionable truths in what Berkowski and others will tell us?

Let's talk about it today:  live on Twitter at 4 p.m. London time; 11 a.m. New York time; 8 a.m. Los Angeles; 5 p.m. Berlin; 3 p.m. GMT. See you then.

The Bookseller's The FutureBook 2014 conference programme on 14th November promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead. Keynote commentary will come from not only from author and entrepreneur George Berkowski, but also from WGSN's Carla Buzasi, and -- in conversation with Philip Jones -- Penguin Random House's Tom Weldon. Hurry to secure your seat, as sales will be closed on Tuesday.