BEA debates 'power shift' to authors and readers

BEA debates 'power shift' to authors and readers

The theme of the International Digital Publishing Forum conference on day one at Book Expo in New York was “Putting Readers First,” but whether power has shifted from publishers and retailers to readers - asserted in a keynote by Canelo Publishing’s Michael Bhaskar - was quickly challenged by Bloomsbury c.e.o. Richard Charkin, who says it “has transferred to authors.”

For Charkin, the author is “our fundamental customer, and the next few years will be all about looking after the author. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Undoubtedly, as Harper chief digital officer Chantal Restivo-Alessi noted later in the morning, it’s a bit of both: “getting close to the consumer is one element of serving the author.”

Speaking as new International Publishers Association head, Charkin listed obstacles that publishers face, including the education gender gap (84% of the world is literate, but 89% of those are men; less than 80% of women can read). Closer to home, not only are libraries being “decimated,” it is worrying that people aged 55-65 in England outperform those 16-24 in literacy and numeracy. Then there’s “complexity” built into the process: on average, 25 people handle a book before it reaches the ultimate purchaser.

Why do we make things harder for ourselves in a globalized world, when we publish the same book with different covers in different territories, minimizing the impact a cover can have, Charkin asked. Would Coca-Cola or Google do that?

Different prices and publication dates also cause confusion, especially when main marketing venues - CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Economist, FT - are global. Of course, Bloomsbury has set itself more global goals than many other houses. But Restivo-Alessi spoke to Harper’s as well: “We have to explain to the author what rights we require and can monetize. It’s our duty to open as many doors as possible. We have to educate the talent.”

What we can do to best help ourselves, Charkin maintained, is “to remember what we are here for – to link the author to the reader and to stay in business. Erase complexity. Resist monopolies – I don’t have to spell that out! Fight for what really matters, like the protection of authors’ rights.”

Authors’ freedom to publish has “never been under greater threat,” with threats coming from expected and unexpected sources, governments and tech companies both. Charkin sits on the board of the Institute of Physics, and mentioned how it received a letter from the British Foreign Office about how to control access to physics information. “We don’t appreciate that.” As for piracy – “it’s not helped by major authors saying it’s great to be pirated.”

With the power shift to readers, Bhaskar’s keynote emphasized the key function of curation, “selecting and arranging to add value.” Publishers for decades have complained about too many books. Now the increase is on steroids. Bhaskar sees this “abundance” as our biggest problem: how did we ever get to publishing a million new books in English around the world last year? It’s a macro problem of excess, on top of general information overload. 

He referenced a Gallup finding that the average American consumes information equal to 175 newspapers daily. Indeed, “people want less choice in the world.” So gatekeepers are becoming even more important; imprints and selections should really mean something (“the most important thing a publisher can say is ‘no’”). We should publish fewer but better books. Bhaskar concluded that part of publishing’s new business model should be to empower others – like Wattpad, Librify, or Goodreads – as curators.

In a later panel, focused on the “fractured” book discovery landscape, Goodreads founder Otis Chandler announced that the site now has 40 million users. “We have seen how the battle for attention has shifted to ‘media influencers,’ who are ‘ground zero’ for building buzz,” Chandler said, dividing them into three categories: “micro-celebrities and notable people; authors; bloggers and power users with influence.”

Chandler went on to single out mobile as one of the biggest trends. Half of Goodreads traffic is now mobile. In a survey of “very avid” readers, 48% read on mobile, 80% of them women. By contrast, usually Goodreads skews only 70% female.

Harper chief marketing officer Angela Tribelli seconded mobile’s importance for the future: “We’re looking much more closely at phones as we expand globally.”  On the other hand, PRH director of consumer marketing Amanda Close was “amazed” by another finding from the Goodreads study: “Only six per cent of people said they were solely reading e-books.”

In a panel on “taking it to the reader,” Macmillan Higher Education and New Ventures c.e.o. Ken Michaels explained that in his sector, it’s taking it to the “doer,” and emphasized the importance of consumer connectedness. “Nomophobia” – the fear of being away from a mobile device and disconnectedness – on the part of his consumers is very real and publishers need to pay attention.

Finally, advice on what publishers can do better to put readers first came from several quarters. Pressbooks founder Hugh McGuire reminded us that pundits expected e-books to comprise 50% of the market by now. Instead, it’s plateaued at 20%. “Is it that people don’t want to read books digitally or are we not taking advantage and giving it value?”

Entrepreneur Richard Nash called it “the plateau of convenience – we’ve reached the threshold of the thing for which ebooks were optimized. We can’t make reading any more convenient, so what will we do now? What is the mountain of ascendance as opposed to the plateau of convenience?” 

Molly Barton, ex-Penguin and now a consultant, says that “publishers need to decide whether they’re going to be direct to consumer or not. If not, they need to up the game, to collaborate with start-ups with starter antennae. They are willing to experiment and fail and find what readers really want.”