Delivering the keynote address at the BISG annual meeting, Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy emphasized that book publishing has been transformed by the “ staggering amount of information available. There’s more information on publishing than ever before and I love it.”
According to Reidy, readers of literary fiction purchase e-books just as much as readers of commercial fiction, though both remain attached to the physical book. “The book is a permanent keepsake,” she said, “unlike a YouTube video.” Most readers, she said, seem to want e-books to be a “replica of the print book.” Enhanced e-books loaded with videos or other digital gimmicks, have been a failure, although its unclear why. “Is it because of the interruptions to the text or because we, the publishers, have failed to make them good enough?” she said.
Despite predictions that e-books might reach 50% of all book sales, Reidy said e-books sales have slowed and are likely to settle at about “25% to 30%” of total book sales. Although initially e-books helped jump backlist sales, Reidy said, “not anymore,” noting that “the novelty has worn off.” She said now “there are fewer readers” entering in the digital category and said the slowing growth in e-book sales have pushed publishers back to “highlighting books as beautiful physical objects.”
Asked if the higher pricing of e-books, in the wake of publishers’ new agency agreements with Amazon, had also figured in the slowdown of e-book sales, Reidy noted that in the wake of publisher settlements over e-book price-fixing charges in the case with Apple, “I’m not supposed talk about pricing, ” but added that "our data says that our pricing is effective.”
She pointed out that even the sales of books from S&S’s line of hip young YouTube authors, are overwhelmingly in print. Old-line media like major print, radio and TV shows, she said, were still the best way to drive sales of a book. “Even if most of those sales are through online channels.”
Reidy hailed the rise of subscription services like Scribd and Oyster, praising their role in book discovery, though she cautioned that it remains unclear whether the subscription business model is sustainable. S&S makes its backlist title available to subscription services, she said, emphasizing that these services do not cannibalize print sales and that they also drive discovery. “A high percentage of the books on these services are read and paid-for and consumers are trying new things,” Reidy said, pointing out that subscription offers “revenue and discovery.”
Digital publishing is no longer a separate department at publishing houses, she said, and is now “integrated at every level in publishing." Although she said that it also has the potential to create “new messes,” when data is misused or misunderstood. But accurate metadata, “makes a huge difference in sales,” she said, highlighting how a simple change in metadata impacted the house’s experience with the novel Galveston, written by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of the hit HBO TV series True Detectives.
Originally published in 2010, the novel got good reviews and won an Edgar award, but sold about 1,000 copies, Reidy said. While there is no connection between the novel and the TV show, S&S saw the rising popularity of the show, and quickly changed the metadata by adding a note to the author bio that Galveston was written by the True Detectives creator. In 2014, Galveston sold more than 37,000 copies, print and e-books combined. “And this was not a tie-in. We did it with metadata,” Reidy said.
Metadata and social media, she said, “can be used to connect books to what’s going on in the world. We’re just learning how to do this. We can bring the backlist directly to readers but we need daily, as well as monthly and yearly planning. Real world feedback can shape our publishing program.” Publishers, she said, can use social media to "establish direct connections and relationships" with communities interested in their authors. "We need to give our authors reason to partner with us," she said.
She is bullish on the new world of social media-driven book publicity and the “true globalization” of book sales. She noted that the international sales of the U.S.-based authors of the S&S YouTube book line start “as soon the book is mentioned. As soon as buzz starts, sales start immediately everywhere in the world.”
Indeed word of mouth remains “the best sales driver,” she said, “depending on the mouth.” Reidy said that the ability of the morning TV shows or even Oprah to impact book sales has “diminished. All the stuff we used to think we knew about publishing has gone away.”
But she also added that “young people will create unimaginable new forms of the book that we haven’t even begun to locate—that’s my pet theory.”