Thursday, February 3, 2011

Notes from Digital Book World, Part 1 of 3 Parts

By S.J. Rozan

The second Digital Book World conference was held last week in New York. The organizers, F&W Media, a publisher of magazines and books, founded this meeting a year ago to bring publishers together to discuss the impact of the digital revolution on the industry. My guesstimate of the crowd was around 2,000, mostly publishing company professionals, some bookstore owners, agents, very few writers. I'll give a precis of each session I attended and then a wrap-up. My two-cents notes on each session are in parentheses.

The morning sessions were for the whole convention; breakout sessions were in the afternoon.

First, some terms:

Form factor - refers to the shape/size/physical configuration of an e-device.

Dedicated device - the Kindle, Sony Reader, etc., whose purpose is reading e-books; also referred to as an electronic ink device. This is in opposition to a tablet.

Tablet - the iPad and others like it that have many e-uses beyond books.

Ecosystem - sync-ed or sync-able devices: laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.

One-to-one vs. one-to-many marketing - self-explanatory, but terms rattled off when discussing the marketing potential of social media.

Vertical communities, a.k.a. verticals - geographically spread but interest-focused groups.

Drop-in title - a book not scheduled or in a publisher's catalog, but published because timely or otherwise thought worthwhile at a particular moment.

Bizdat - business data; self-explanatory, here only because I was astonished to actually hear this spoken.

Session One: The results of a 2010 publishing executive survey commissioned for this conference.

The survey has industry insiders seeing huge growth in the e-book segment of publishing. With the choice of e-readers expanding, readers will be able to find an alternative with which they're comfortable at a price they can afford.

All the execs surveyed expect e-sales to be a progressively larger part of the market, with a concomitant decline in print sales. They think e-books will be 50% of the market in book numbers (though not, significantly, in income, since they're priced lower) by late 2014. If this is true, then presumably sometime in 2015, e-books will begin to surpass print books.

Many execs expressed optimism that this will ultimately mean people will be reading more, especially as e-books are lower-priced and instantly available with a click. However, they also say 2011 will be a "bumpy ride" as publishing company personnel will require "significant re-training" and publishers will need to re-focus. No other industry, the survey taker pointed out, has had to move this quickly to react to the effects of the digital revolution in its area.

(SJR note: Remember, this is only what publishing executives think will happen this coming year. They may be wrong, but since it's what they're planning for, writers might want to take note.)

Session Two: CEOs

A lot of positive-sounding statements from this group, but as you listen closely, they're more tempered.

One exec said the explosive growth of e-publishing isn't a storm that's engulfing traditional publishers, it's a tsumani they can surf to reach new heights.

Another said, in some ways, we're entering a golden age of publishing: e-devices create a "frictionless delivery system" to get content to readers. He cautioned, though, that a golden age of publishing is not necessarily a golden age for publishers. New skills sets, some known but not widely learned, some not yet known, will be needed to do the publisher's job of connecting creative people to their audience.

A third: digital publishing is about lowering barriers, making it easier and more seamless for books with smaller natural audiences to reach their readers. Connecting Tom Clancy to his readers, he pointed out, was never the problem.

All agreed they're now running two companies, one producing print books and one e-books. Some insist the difference between these two companies right now is less of an issue than understanding the changing nature of the distribution of print books.

Three major issues emerged from this panel.

• One was the question of the role of publishers in this changing landscape. If e-readers and digital packagers can connect writers seamlessly to their audiences -- self e-publishing, in other words, now available on a monumental scale -- what added value does a publisher bring? The answer was widely agreed to be "curation," which can take two forms: the traditional gate-keeper plus editorial-improvement element; and the possibility of discovering what an audience wants and then finding a writer to produce it. This second role is one step beyond the previous point about connecting writers to smaller natural audiences.

• The second was the issue of "discoverability." In the bookstore model, whether chain or indie, people strolled through displays of books. They might have come in for one thing, but they found others. Publishers paid for different kinds of shelf space in the chains; indies that hand-sold shelved accordingly. For e-books, with no physical place to go to make that first discovery, how do you reach the target audience?

(SJR note: The 800-pound gorillas in that room, of course, are the demise of newspaper reviews and the shaky future of B&N and Borders, about which see tomorrow's blog entry. If the chains go under, the question becomes the same for print books, too; it's almost there anyway, now that newspaper reviews have all but vanished. The touted social media -- overwhelmingly Facebook and Twitter, for now -- allow access to vertical communities, but once you find them, what do you do? Take an ad, try to start buzz? Word-of-mouth is amplified by the thousands of online review sites, but whom do you trust and how do you find them?)

• Third is the pricing question. Publishers are still in wild flux, trying to figure out not only what skills they need in the e-world, but the true overhead cost of an e-book and therefore the pricing structure needed to make a profit. Meanwhile, authors e-pubbing their own reverted works are pricing them low, and Amazon is willing right now to price e-books for the Kindle at a loss to grab a massive market share, fighting off the tablets. These phenomena could fix consumers' expectations at a price point so low, publishers (especially the "Big Six") won't be able to afford to make new books.

--To be continued.

S.J. Rozan is the award-winning author of 12 novels, including the mystery series featuring private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Her most recent work, On the Line, finds Bill in a high-stakes chase to locate the kidnapped Lydia. For more information about S.J., go to


Sandra Parshall said...

Thanks for the report, SJ. I'm glad SinC had its own representative at the conference.

My personal impression is that e-books will be a huge benefit to writers at a time when it's becoming harder and harder to get published the traditional, expensive way. Publishers may have to struggle to prove that they still play a necessary and desirable role in getting a book out to readers.

Writers' conferences and writers' organizations will have to change too. They'll eventually have to put e-books on an equal footing with print books, make them eligible for awards and the authors eligible for places on conference programs. But what will the book room at Bouchercon and other cons look like in a digital world? Interesting times!

Barbara said...

SJR! - great stuff! So glad you could be there on our behalf. I particularly appreciate the jargon-to-English dictionary.

I really take issue with the claim that no industry has had to retool so quickly. Most industries went through this a decade ago. The last time e-books were all the buzz in publishing was 2000 - publishers began saying, "oh, hey, I wonder if we could..." just as that tech bubble burst.

No industry has had to retool so fast after fending off change for so long is another way to look at it.

I'm also stifling a chuckle at the image of big six CEO surfing. Dude.

NancyM said...

"Discoveribility"--that's a concept we're all struggling with, I think, in the digital age. We used to call it "browsing," but it's hard to browse among e-books. Great report, SJ! I look forward to hearing more. Thanks for attending for us.

Marcia Talley said...

Wow, S.J. Informative report, well-presented. Can't wait for parts 2 and 3!

Shelley Costa said...

Thanks, S.J., for this comprehensive and well written "field report."

Con Lehane said...

S.J., This is great. Thanks.

Adelaide said...

Thanks much for your report from the e-world, SJ. I also take issue with the complaint about having to re-tool so quickly: music struggled with the exact same problem. I also agree with Barbara: entrenched companies who refuse to change until they're on the brink of extinction have only themselves to blame for not embracing the future (and now, the present).

I do think e-publishing, in the end, will have a positive impact for writers. As more people read, due to lower cost, ease of purchase and increased variety from which to choose, more writers will be given a chance to "prove" themselves. Exciting times!

Thomas Kaufman said...
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