Recipe taken from the Publishing Almanac 2010; Take a handful of wistful nostalgia and mix with a pinch of regret. Work in a fistful of stubbornness - being careful not to look at the actual mixture. Sprinkle uncertainty and doubt on top. Place in financial constraints and pop it in the oven pre-heated to miltonian temperatures. Close your eyes, wait an indefinite amount of time and hope for the best. When ready, the strategy cake should have a firm but uncertain texture accompanied by that new book smell.
I have heard publishers and commentators alike suggesting that the industry should take a softly-softly approach to eBooks, waiting in the margins until this period of flux stabilises. Really? Well that’s exactly where you will remain in the long term – in the margins, irrelevant and expiring slowly. And who knows if the book world is suddenly going to become as straightforward as it may have once been?
I recently attended a panel on the future of the book here in Ireland. Now, leaving aside the fact that all of the panellists were from the UK, it actually served as a pretty good summary of the general attitudes to eBooks here. The first half an hour was spent lamenting the attack on “real” books and bookstores while simultaneously praising Amazon and online book sales as good for everyone – increased sales for all.
The debate then discussed the dual threat of online book sales and eBooks to publishers and bookstores. Unfortunately I felt, as did others who attended, that while there was some great insights and discussion, we came away none the wiser about the future of books.
This seems to reflect publishers here as well. As one publisher said to me recently “I know we should be doing something about eBooks and we’d like to do something about eBooks but we don’t know what to do about eBooks!” In our experience dealing with our publishing clients, there is a real sense of uncertainty in the industry.
No matter what you hear or read, no-one knows the recipe for success is or even what’s going to happen six months down the line. What do we know for certain is that eBook sales are rising as is the digital share overall. It’s also clear that this trend is set to continue – to what level, no-one knows but you can bet that it will be significant - Sony recently forecast that “Within five years there will be more digital content sold than physical content.”
We all believe passionately that books in their original, beautiful form will still be around, but how do we deal with this dual threat of on-line book selling and eBooks? (Cue the worried expression and a quick glance in the oven.)
You have to accept that publishing, despite its vocational elements and high aspirations is not special in a business sense. It’s just like every other industry that has had to adapt to changing markets throughout history. The simple fact is that any industry will encounter new products, new threats and new challenges on an almost yearly basis. The problem with publishing is that there has rarely been such a challenge, certainly not of this scale. Even a seemingly radical departure such as Print on Demand compliments rather than challenges the status quo.
So as publishers face what I think everyone will agree is the single biggest challenge in their lifetimes, what are they to do?
What they can’t do, as I have heard suggested by publishers and commentators alike is take a softly-softly approach to eBooks until this period of flux stabilises. In all probabilities this is the beginning of an era of constant change where publishers must bring their stories to their readers, not expect their readers to find them. This also shouldn’t be an either-or debate as was suggested by a member of the audience - your titles need to be available whenever and most importantly however your readers want to consume them.
It is understandable that at present, when eBooks make up a relatively small percentage of sales and revenue (although some publishers are reporting 10%+), it is hard to justify cost bases and investment, but what happens when eBook sales make up 20% of sales? Or 40%? It’s too late then to begin looking at your digital strategy. Decisions need to be made now that will pay off in the long term.
Whether you believe the way forward is digital or not, it is your responsibility to your authors, your readers and your organisation to be educated and prepared for it. For those afraid of wholesale changes and costs, do what many of the major publishing houses are doing – experiment. Talk to your authors and readers, find out what they really think. Dip a toe in the market. Convert a title or two and watch their progress. Give a free eBook with your hardbacks. Make an old title from an established author free or cheap as an eBook. Blog and twitter about your new ideas. Your readers will grasp any idea you have and will give you valuable market research and feedback for free.
Open up to change and your authors and readers will embrace it. It is the changes you make now both in practice and philosophy that will determine the future of the industry we all love.