Familiar topics, for those who work in book publishing, were addressed at an NYU Media Talk Monday night. The event, a panel called The Future of the Book organized by the college's Alumni Affairs Office and the Center for Publishing (at the School of Continuing and Professional Studies), was focused, as moderator Michael Cader (who founded Publisher's Lunch) said, on the "near term" future of the titular object, or the next one to three years.
Beginning with a question about what each panelist is struggling with most right now, Peter Balis, v-p and director of business development at Wiley's gobal digital books, said he is grappling with the "bandwidth" of the reader. Ballis said that, in thinking about his customer--the "reader"--he has to question not just what they want to read, and how they want to read it, but now how much time they have to do so. Understanding the customer, he explained, is the challenge.
Judith Curr, president and publisher of Atria Publishing Group, said she, like so many other publishers, is facing the uncomfortable reality that none of the former "levers" work anymore. The old, once nearly-guarantreed methods of launching a bestseller, have disappeared. Now, she said, all publishers are facing the "fragmentation" of the audience. Reviews, print ads, TV appearances on the most popular shows--none of these things comes with the same likelihood of turning a book into a bestseller.
Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google, jumped in talking about the international publishing landscape. Noting that Google Books, this year, has expanded into over 30 countries, he said getting up-and-running abroad can be tricky. There is a "lack of cohesion" around publishing standard, globally, which makes starting programs in other countries difficult. "The idea of standards, and having standards we all agree upon, is critical," he explained.
For Peter Gethers, who is both president of Random House Films and an editor-at-large for Penguin Random House (acquiring across all of the merged company's many imprints), the hurdle he faces is getting entrenched book types to think outside the box. Getting veterans of the book business, who may have joined the industry exclusively interested in the print product, to shift their perspective can be a problem, Gethers said. From his vantage point, he wants to get colleagues to rethink the publishing process and make them see the need to control content across platforms, and to be able to see the need to convert books into other forms of media, from TV series to films.
When asked about what they thought of the numbers on e-book growth, and the fact that the sales of the format seem to be leveling off, a number of the panelists said they still see movement by category. Curr said that for fiction, Atra titles can sell up to 60% in e-book. In nonfiction, where there used to be a more even split, she is now seeing digital creep up in some cases, outselling print formats. Yet, in other categories, like cookbooks, there is little to no market for e-books.
Balis concurred with Curr, saying he also sees a "segmented" market when it comes to the digital format. He also noted that it has been interesting to see the conversion of backlist titles to e-book, and how, as hard as discoverability is online, these titles can be given a new life once available in the newer format.
Turvey had a more philosophical response to the question, repeating a motto others have noted, that the "impacts of technology are often overstated in the short run, and underestimated in the long run." He wondered if the market is now "at a pause" while we "bring other verticals into the business."
When asked about another popular topic in the business--subscription models (specifically on the trade/consumer side)--the panelists were, mostly, pessimistic. While Curr said the models, if any succeed, will negatively affect those who work in publishing (by dissuading consumers from buying books). Balis also noted that, for the most part, many of the current services out there now, with some exception, seem to be "ahead of demand," and that consumers do not seem to want book sucscriptions in the packages being offered.