A tiny bit uncertain

A tiny bit uncertain

We are all aware that the digital disruption impacting the book publishing business remains unfinished, and yet it seems that we still need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact.

Faber chief executive Stephen Page first warned us about a creeping complacency back in 2013—“we’ve coped with the format shift and all is finding a new equilibrium”. And I’ve seen other publishers make the same comment since. In fact, I come across the sentiment so often, that there’s a bit of me that wonders if it has become a sign of how complacent we have actually become.

What is more true: the publisher on the platform at a digital event warning against complacency, or the fact that the room is now only half as full as it once was?

Reporting on Publishers' Forum, the Klopotek produced digital conference which opened in Berlin, Tuesday (27th April), my colleague Porter Anderson quotes Dr Rolf Grisebach, chief executive of art book publisher Thames and Hudson, raising similar questions: "It looks like publishers don't like change so much. Maybe that's why we love so much what we do that it is hard to change."

"Once we realized that digital won't go away," Grisebach is reported to have said, publishing worldwide began to face "a trend toward digitisation of the content, of marketing, sales [but] it's not a linear trend. It's very hard to predict the timing of the change, the extent of the change, and the proportion of print versus digital. And that creates more uncertainty...You do have to constantly adapt" strategic planning.

Grisebach will know this from his experiences at T&H, but the point about this not being a linear shift is well made. It also explains this current period of disquiet. As has been said before, publishing is many different businesses circling a common format—in a lot of cases print remains the format most desired by the consumer, and the format most effectively published into by the publisher.

In many respects, the digital revolution we have seen, and around which much noise has hitherto been generated, has been very isolated. Fundamental in its way, but narrow. A good example is provided by a currently popular book. More than half of the sales of the number one book The Girl on the Train have been made in e-book format, with audio downloads also considerable. Step back a moment to think about that, and it is—in such a short space of time—a remarkable thing.

Equally, startling has been how quickly the sector has adapted. There is now a certainty about the trade publishing business that I’ve not seen for a number of years. Print and digital have not only reached an accommodation, they are actively enjoying each other’s company. Sales of the different versions of The Girl on the Train are feeding off each other in a virtuous circle, with digital marketing stimulating sales on release, and print visibility aiding digital saleability thereafter.

But outside of commercial fiction few books boast similar numbers. Publishers in other sectors wrestle different issues, many of which feel far less settled. In reference publishing, they face the tyranny of rival digital content being offered for free; in education the big question is over how far (and economically) content can be deconstructed to only meet the needs of a particular course, or audience; in children’s and illustrated publishing, the issue is about how attractive audiences find even beautifully rendered digital iterations, and whether these is a business to made on the platforms that are currently available.

Grisebach is right to say that publishers don’t like change, and that uncertainty remains. The problem is that a lot of us have got used to the change, and some have forgotten about the uncertainty.