In his keynote speech at the SCBWI conference last weekend, Rubin Pfeffer stunned the audience by urging the organization to transform itself into an ebook publisher as it approaches its 40th year.
Pfeffer, an industry veteran whose career has spanned long terms at Macmillan, Harcourt, Pearson, and Simon & Schuster, is now a partner in the East West Literary Agency. His speech, which focused on the concept of a “Community of Children’s Content Creators” in the digital publishing world, started off by clarifying that while his talk was a call to action, “This is not instead of, but in addition to.”
Pfeffer then posed the question, “What does it mean to be relevant in the digital age?” Publishers have been forced to reorganize in ways no one could have imagined when the SCBWI was founded in 1971, he said; today’s challenges include high advances, and the costs of shipping, warehousing inventory, and returns. Every area of publishing has been affected by the new technologies, but especially the retail component, in his opinion. The chains are scrambling to stay alive, Amazon and other e-retailers are now among the most successful accounts for publishers, ebooks are outselling print hardcovers “and trending toward outselling paperbacks,” he said, “and the answers now lie in the hands of booksellers and readers.”
As for e-readers, Pfeffer was even more forceful. “Device manufacturers are becoming e-publishers with original, exclusive material published just for the Kindle, Nook, and iPad,” he said. Pfeffer cited the economics that authors may anticipate today amid ever-changing contractual agreements. Using a $10 paperback and an ebook of equal price as examples, he explained that an author represented by an agent receives 80 cents per book in paperback royalties and $1.75 for an ebook edition. When rights are held by the author in partnership with an ebook publisher, the royalties—on the low side—are $3.50. Pfeffer, who is dubious about self-publishing because of the inherent risk of lackluster editing, copyediting, design, and production, told the audience, “We should applaud publishers for their new strategies, and embrace alternate publishing options for greater opportunities and possibilities.”
Pfeffer did state that none of this designates the end of the book, and that “digital is an additional option, not a replacement for a printed book.” Quoting Michael Edwards, CEO of Borders, he told the audience that “it’s important to understand what’s driving the rise of ebooks in the first place is the strong-as-ever desire of consumers to read books, in one form or another. After all, what’s a device without content? As [they] make it easier for consumers to enjoy books, they’ll buy more titles, and read them more quickly.”
Turning to directly address Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser of the SCBWI, Pfeffer delivered what seemed to be the key point of his speech. “At a time like this, perhaps SCBWI should become an e-publisher. Let us stay relevant and seize opportunities within the changing industries that flow all around us.” Emphasizing the ability of digital technology to “teach, show, demonstrate, move information and deliver it in the most effective manner,” he urged SCBWI members to “be innovative in creating great quality content that can exploit the visual opportunities. Look at the iPad as a dry sponge, thirsty for great content to exercise its multimedia capabilities.” In conclusion, he recommended that the organization form a steering committee to begin the discussion about what place SCBWI should hold “in the digital tomorrow.”