Industry debates its 'Big Ideas'

The industry must publish fewer books more speedily, The Bookseller's FutureBook Conference heard yesterday (21st November).

In a "big ideas" panel, eight industry figures including Canongate m.d. Jamie Byng, Osprey Group c.e.o. Rebecca Smart, writer Jeff Norton and agent Simon Trewin proposed one thought apiece to change the direction of the book business.

Byng argued that publishers, authors and readers would all benefit if an agreement was made to publish fewer books each year.

Byng said: "As the entry level for publishing gets lower and lower and the number of books gets greater, it strikes me as that as an industry, we would be better to publish fewer books, and do it better." He added: "A decade ago at Canongate we were publishing 55 books a year – now it's 40. If we reduce it to 20, each book would receive twice as much care and attention at each stage of its life… perhaps in time we'd even be sent fewer second-rate manuscripts. Customer satisfaction is a term you hear a lot about in other industries, but we ignore it our peril."

Rebecca Smart, c.e.o. of the Osprey Group, wanted publishers to speed up their process. She said: "We have staff thinking about books 18 months in the future, never mind the backlist. We are publishing books into a market that will be significantly different from today. I don't think there are any physical barriers that make it slow, I think the reasons are cultural and historical."

The session, chaired by Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page, also covered self-publishing and digital issues. Page said: "Transition to digital has been comfortable so far", but urged that more innovation was needed. Michael Bhaskar, digital publishing director of Profile Books, said publishers had to define themselves better. “My slightly larger idea is what publishing might be. It is about filtering and amplifying content to add value. If you’re doing that you’re a publisher.”

Chris McCrudden, head of technology and new media at Midas, used the Wild West as an analogy for self-publishing, and argued for a rating system like the one used by eBay to regulate the industry, with people using self-publishing being ranked for their performance. Those “actors” who did well would get rewards, including better fees or preferential search rankings, while those who behaved badly – like those self-publishers who broke Kobo’s rules earlier this year - would face penalties such as delisting.

Peter Hudson, founder and c.e.o. of BitLit, which offers e-books for books readers already own in print, argued for bundling of e-books, saying that people would be keen to acquire digital copies of books they already owned in physical form for a reduced cost.

Writer Jeff Norton challenged the publishing industry to “disrupt” themselves. He argued that publishers should work together and create a device which could be sold online and through bookshops, who would be paid every time someone bought a book on that device.

Simon Trewin, head of literary at WME, said the industry needed more cross-pollination with other industries. He said: "The danger of a small community is that it cannot form immunities against new diseases", and said that "hackathon" events could boost technical innovation in the trade.

Marcello Vena, general manager of RCS Libri, described how co-publishing could change the industry, allowing publishers to support self-published writers and share the costs involved, to ultimately reap the benefits.

The panel came at the end of yesterday's packed conference in Westminster, during which Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store (Bantam Press), outlined how Amazon could never be counted out in his keynote address, before Seni Glaister, c.e.o. of The Book People urged the Government to act on Amazon and support competition. HarperCollins UK c.e.o. Charlie Redmayne told publishers to  be proactive about addressing the concerns of author, agents and retailers.

Other panels throughout the day covered the future for ebook sales including the future of MOOCs; how to reach audiences; and how to create partnerships that scale. Strategies for growth, including a contribution from Richard Nash, and libraries were other topics covered, along with shaping the future of the workforce.

The FutureBook Innovation Awards were also announced.