A standing room only crowd jammed into the Cromwell Room at Earls Court mid-morning on day two of the London Book Fair, hoping to learn the answer to what moderator Torin Douglas, media correspondent for BBC News, called “the $64,000 question: where’s the money” in e-books? Heads of some of Britain’s largest and most powerful publishing houses entered into a heated hour-long discussion, all of them of the mind that e-books can’t be ignored, but differing in their ways of dealing with the pitfalls of e-books, namely piracy and pricing.
Gail Rebuck, chairman and CEO of Random House Group, was probably the most pro-e-book speaker on the panel; she said the Sony Reader has “revolutionized my life” and provides “almost a more immersive experience” than reading a physical book. Tim Hely-Hutchinson, CEO of Hachette Livre UK, is less of a fan; he said he owns an e-reader “but haven’t taken to it.” Still, he said, “It’s not about me; it’s about where readers want to go.” Victoria Barnsley, publisher and CEO of HarperCollins UK, prefers the physical book for now. And “we are believers,” assured Penguin Group chairman and CEO John Makinson. Yet Makinson warned his colleagues of the “complicated” problems that e-books raise, especially in regards to copyright protection and pricing.
Once the discussion turned to piracy, speakers clamored for the mic. “Publishers should have zero tolerance for piracy,” declared Hely-Hutchinson, while Makinson harped on the difficulty of policing sites like Scribd.com, which he called “the YouTube of text.” Makinson’s concern is that it is difficult to monitor the sharing of illegal copies of books on sites like Scribd. Douglas brought up familiar comparisons with the music industry and piracy of content, but Hely-Hutchinson agreed with the other panelists that “We won’t win by suing consumers.”
The topic of pricing also drew heated commentary. “We need to adapt our thinking about payment” said Makinson, who is of the mind that publishers are “short-changing authors” if they don’t price e-books the same as physical books. Rebuck, too, called for parity in pricing while e-books are in their infancy in the British market, and said, “as we go on we can adjust.” And Barnsley came out strongly against the practice of “micro pricing” and selling chapters individually, preferring a subscription model. She said e-book reader manufacturers, network providers and others involved in the retail chain would like e-books to be priced as low as possible. But “they see [the book] as the petrol in the car, while we see it as the wine in the bottle.”
In the end, of course, no one solved the $64,000 question—yet the panel certainly provided plenty of food for thought for international publishers who are just dipping into the e-book market.
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