The fourth annual Digital Minds event kicked off the London Book Fair with a slate of morning keynotes that sought to put the future of publishing in context with its past. From its new home in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center, a full house gathered for what London Book Fair Director Alistair Burtenshaw called the LBF’s “accelerator” conference.
In the opening keynote, Jim Griffin, managing director of OneHouse LLC, spoke of what he called the “Tarzan economics” of the digital age, where companies “cling to the vine that keeps them off the jungle floor,” while having to reach for the next vine to move them forward. But despite a culture where it has seemingly become “voluntary” for consumers to pay for content, the greatest battle publishers face is not with “pirates,” Griffin said, but with the limited time and budgets of consumers. He said that publishers must make their products simpler to buy, estimating that with every required click of a button you can lose potential audience. Prices must also be attractive, because unlike the days of just buying a book, consumers in the digital age also have new devices, Internet access and data plans to invest in, all of which puts stress on what someone will pay for content.
In looking at the future of publishing, Griffin said it was first necessary to look back, observing that “new technology always leads to new culture.” Gutenberg was a pirate, he said, as well as the creators of the Library of Alexandria, and the makers of piano rolls, while those technological changes, fought at first, quickly became accepted. Likewise, In the digital age, new generations will increasingly find behavior normal that our generation found unthinkable. “The lesson is that when actual control begins to fail us, we do not answer with more control,” Griffin said, predicting a shift to more “actuarial economics,” fr publishing, collective models by which money is paid into a pool and then distributed, such as with radio.
Such “actuarial” models must grow in the publishing business, he posited, but stressed that in order for that to happen, there is a pressing the need for comprehensive, international rights registries. The ultimate dilemma, he said, is that culture “is too important to be left to the tip jar,” while access is too important to leave to the size of someone’s wallet. He urged publishers to think of starting relationships with consumers, not juest selling them product. He also spoke of the challenges and opportunities from emerging global economies, especially the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) suggesting that an extending an “open hand” in these markets would ultimately be more successful, than a “closed fist.”
Griffin was followed by Andrew Steele, creative director of the comedy Web site Funny or Die. Steele told attendees that content remains king. An entertainment industry veteran, he reminded publishers of why they succeed in the first place. For all the fear of “user-generated” content among today’s companies, he said, users simply cannot fulfill the demand for quality content.
Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne then offered the perfect example of content as king: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has sold over 450 million books in print globally, as well as being the best-selling film series of all times. How dedicated are Potter fans? During the beta phase of Pottermore, Redmayne said, 97% of users accessed every page on the site, and the average visitor spent 49 minutes on the site. The site officially launched on Saturday morning, April 14, in the U.K. And in another sign of the digital times, it launched not with a media blitz, but with a tweet. Redmayne said the feedback has been remarkable so far, and he showed attendees a collection of YouTube videos put online by users.
The Pottermore e-books, meanwhile, went on sale at the end of March, and Redmayne told attendees that e-book sales were in the millions of pounds after just two and half weeks, estimating that sales were already approaching levels he expected to hit in October. As for piracy, it has gone down, he said, despite (or rather because of) Pottermore’s DRM-free e-books. Pottermore only uses watermarking. He acknowledged that Harry Potter series was the most pirated book ever without ever having a digital edition made available, noting that physical copies were used to make pirate editions, but said pirating content is not instinct, and said publishing should learn from the music business that the best way to counter it is to make things available on platforms and in formats that consumers want, and at reasonable prices.
Redmayne closed by observing that the Pottermore experience is an example of how publishers can increase their relevance in the digital age—but also raises a key challenge—publishers must shift from marketing to the trade, to market better to consumers.