At last year’s Digital Minds conference, author Neil Gaiman encouraged publishers to “try everything,” advice that was echoed at this year’s event, as a morning of keynote speakers kicked off the London Book Fair by urging publishers to look beyond the book.
“I do not believe that books will ever die,” said Anthony Horowitz, author of the bestselling Alex Rider books, in his opening talk. “At the same time, we cannot deny we are in an extraordinary transition, and it does seem to me sometimes that publishers are not grabbing the nettle because they are too afraid of getting stung.”
If publishers are a little afraid, that fear, Horowitz noted, is understandable. He opened his speech by comparing publishers of literary fiction to animals in danger of extinction, and ran down the signs of trouble. “Borders is gone, Barnes & Noble is not looking good, sales at U.S. bookstores are down by 22% in five years, U.K. independents are in decline,” he offered. And then, there is Amazon. “They really are evil bastards and I loathe them, and I fear them, and of course I use them all the time, because they are wonderful. That’s the problem.”
Horowitz praised publishers as “undervalued” in the digital discussion, and specifically lauded his publisher, Walker Books, for selling 16 million copies of his Alex Rider books worldwide. But he insisted that publishers in general must grasp the deeper value offered by digital. “It seems to me that anything is possible,” he said of the evolving digital landscape, “but not very much of it is being considered.”
Hororwitz also offered a warning, citing library cuts (both to public and school libraries) and the lack of reading for pleasure in schools. “If you don’t start young, if you don’t consecrate readers, you will pay the price down the line,” he warned. “If I was to sound a warning for the future, it is that we need to nurture our love of reading.”
In a provocative talk that closed the opening session, veteran technology journalist and head of partnership development at the BBC Archives Bill Thompson also urged publishers to think beyond the book, (and beyond the e-book, for that matter) stressing that the Internet is now the center of the creative universe.
Echoing Horowitz, Thompson offered praise for the printed book but stressed how e-books are vastly different. Books are “passive,” while e-books “swim in a different ocean” as “active parts of a digital ecosystem." But he then went on to sharply criticize the way the e-book future is developing, specifically the development of various e-reading platforms and devices, like the Kindle and other platforms, which he called “killing jars” for words.
“The point about those machines and those closed ecosystems is that they deny you the book’s electronic existence,” he said, “offering readers the simulacrum of a page, piercing every letter with needles to hold them in place on the screen, and giving the companies behind them control of the ecosystem by limiting the real possibilities.”
Thompson said it was time for publishers to "fully engage" technology. “This is not a new game. We’ve had 70 years of digital, 40 years of e-books, 30 years of the Internet, 25 years of the web, 10 years of Facebook, and the iPhone is 7 years old,” he chided. “This is not new technology. We should be horrified at how slow we are to adapt to something that has been changing the world for seven decades.”
He also suggested that publishers not look to other content industries for guidance, but to themselves. “You can’t look to newspapers, their model is broken,” he said. “You can’t look to music. The music industry shot itself in the foot, put its foot in its mouth, then shot itself in the head.” But to move forward, he stressed, publishers must accept that the book is no longer at the center of our cultural life. The Internet is.
“Publishing is about bridging cultural capital,” he explained. “If we break from the idea that it is all about books, that doesn’t mean that books don’t matter, it means that other things become possible.”
Between Horowitz and Thompson, a lighter note was struck by psychologist and author Richard Wiseman, who appeared with Rosie Allimonos, head of content partnerships for YouTube, and YouTube strategist Jake Chudnow to discuss how the author has successfully used a YouTube channel to sell books.
Allimonos offered some quick, eye-opening stats for YouTube: it gets one billion unique visitors every month; 100 hours of video is uploaded every minute; and there are now over one million channels on YouTube, with an increasing share of users accessing the platform through a mobile device.
Chudnow noted that a lot of people have used YouTube in the past to tell people about a book. But Wiseman’s channels, including one for his book Quirkology, and for 59 Seconds, “don’t just tell you about a book," but engages an audience "by telling them what’s inside the book.” After meeting Wiseman, Chudnow said he and the author hatched a “case study” around 59 Seconds, designed to see how authors and publishers can use YouTube Channels to extend the brand of their book. “What you’ll find," Chudnow said, "is that engaging audiences has led to selling books.”
Wiseman told the audience that he had done about 50 videos for his Quirkology channel, half of which went viral, and the channel has had about 250 million views, greatly extending his author brand. The channel for 59 Seconds went live in January of 2014, with an eye on book sales, and indeed, book sales have jumped by 44%.
The sixth annual Publishing for Digital Minds Conference kicks off the London Book Fair, which officially opens Tuesday. In her opening intro, LBF director Jacks Thomas said the program reflected the book fair itself, “with content and cross-media intermingling in creative harmony.”