Downer warns publishers: 'set the agenda'

Downer warns publishers: 'set the agenda'

Publishers must take ownership of selling books or face quickly becoming irrelevant, former Borders UK chief Philip Downer told delegates at Tools of Change Frankfurt today (11th October).

Downer said he was concerned that publishers could go the same way of chain booksellers if e-book prices were driven down and the new technology damaged "supplier diversity". He added: "I do believe that perhaps the free market has gone too far."

Downer said bookshops had "failed to adapt to change, failed to innovate, and many of them have gone to the wall as a result" and told publishers that they could not rely on it being "business as usual". He said: "Old sources of income will dry up, and businesses will have to be restructured and repurposed to survive. This includes publishing houses.  The past may be a foreign country, but the future is another planet."

Publishers must pool resources, and use their power and integrity to set the agenda with Apple, Amazon and Google, he argued. "Use your professional associations, lobby politicians and opinion-formers, not as a rearguard action to try and 'save the dear old book', but to demonstrate with determined certainty that you know where this industry should be heading, and that you are determining its direction of travel."

He warned that the dominant position of companies such as Amazon wasn't good for a "plural market, and it won't be good for the future of publishing". Downer added: "We are entering a world where a handful of corporations own proprietary formats through which all the books—and a great proportion of all other creative content—is channelled. New technology can do great things, as the Arab Spring demonstrated, but it can also damage supplier diversity and consumer choice."

He advised publishers to focus on e-ink readers and tread carefully around amalgamating the e-reader and the tablet, and the "seduction of colour, movement and noise". He added: "Narrative books are a specific cultural entity. If people want to read them on smartphones, let them—but don't allow those books get lost in the welter of different online applications."

He recommended that publishers should "impose pricing sanity on the e-book market" and said publishers, and the rump of remaining booksellers, should "work together to develop and champion alternative channels". He also advised creating a free e-book reader on the grounds that it should be content that excited readers, not the device.

Downer said he worried over publishers who did not change: "I fear for publishers who still believe that printed books as objects of beauty will survive through some kind of divine intervention, and that a lively conversation will enable everyone to rub along together. And I fear for the attitude that keeps customers at arms' length, that says: 'Publishers supply the books and retailers know how best to sell them'. Steve Jobs is dead, but sometimes I think Queen Victoria is still alive."

At an earlier session Mitch Joel, blogger at Six Pixels of Separation, advised publishers to "reboot" and establish direct relationships with their customers in the connected world and make everything "as shareable and findable as possible". He added: "It's not about paper or plastic, it is about where can I get the content I want to consume and read." He said the change in how the consumer buys content would make e-commerce appear like a "market correction".

Also at Frankfurt: Nielsen Book's first US e-book chart is coming in a "matter of weeks", Jonathan Nowell, head of Nielsen Book, told delegates at Frankfurt's Tools of Change conference. "We now have feeds of data coming in from all the major US e-book booksellers. It is now a matter of weeks when we will have the first charts. It is coming very soon, I promise you."