Publishers are facing a dystopian future in which they are bit-part players in the ecosystem battles being fought by the large mobile and tech companies, with publishers having to be increasingly agile to find their space on the new platforms, the Frankfurt Book Fair has heard.
Kicking off the fair with the first of the pre-show digital conferences Publishers Launch, Enders analyst Benedict Evans said that large global tech players were building ecosystems, with devices sold to lock users into a particular commercial channel, citing Apple and Amazon as examples. Evans said that those tablets that had failed to gain traction were felled because they did not create that ecosystem of content and services.
"Kindle Fire is the new Sears catalogue. The Kindle Fire is primarily a purchasing product for whatever Amazon sells," he said. The problem for publishers, Evans warned, was that this did not necessarily have to be books, with Amazon's media sales declining relative to the company's growth in other areas, such as shoes. "Amazon looks at whether a market is ready to developed in e-commerce, and then goes after it, or buys a company doing it."
The conference also showcased publisher strategies to find an edge within these platforms. The ever resourceful Dominique Raccah, chief executive of the US independent Sourcebooks, showcased two such initiatives: its interactive iBooks based on the play of William Shakespeare, the Shakespearience, launched just last week; and a new interactive children's product, "Put me in the Story", a platform for bestselling picture books that personalises them by putting the child into the narrative.
The challenge, said Raccah, was to move from print to digital, with enhanced products that deepened the connection between the reader and the book. "We are in the immersion business, no matter what you think, you are working the interface between the reader and the book. Anything that pulls you out of the text, interrupts that flow." She maintained that the opportunity was "enormous", but recommended that publishers start with the customer experience first, and work backwards to the technology, using a process that she said was the "child of agile", a flexible iterative approach.
The conference also heard from German publisher Helmut Pesch from Bastei Lubbe, and Marcello Vena, from Italian publisher RCS Libri. Both were innovating digitally, but with markets only slowly responded to the expected digital shift. E-book market share in Germany was still around 3%, in Italy it was at about 1.5% of the book market.