In his opening keynote at the 2015 London Book Fair Publishing for Digital Minds conference, bestselling novelist David Nicholls expressed wariness about the ongoing digital debate in publishing, although he sees a business moving toward equilibrium.
“In the years since I published One Day, the debate between digital and physical has had a kind of gladiatorial flavor,” Nicholls, whose latest novel, Us, was published last year, told the audience. "On one side, the book as object, libraries and shops, traditional publishers and the lit pages. And, on the other, online retailers, digital downloads, new models of publishing and social media. Cavaliers vs. Roundheads, or perhaps more accurately, Betamax vs. VHS, with only one survivor allowed.”
All the while, hovering over that debate: the “L” word: Luddite. “But we should remember that the Luddites were not simply against technology, they were for social justice and a fair deal,” Nicholls said, raising the familiar specter of Amazon. “When bookshops, independent or otherwise, are under threat from ruthless and predatory competition,” Nicholls said, “ it is hard to discard old allegiances.”
But in reflecting on the changes that have come since 2009, when One Day was first published, Nicholls portrayed a nuanced version of the state of digital publishing. He said he has largely embraced digital reading, but he also spoke of his ongoing affinity for print books, and for booksellers. “For all the ease and convenience of online shopping and the digital download,” he said, “I still feel that a town without a bookshop is missing something." He even suggested that those who browse in physical stores but buy cheaper editions online are guilty of a "genteel form of shoplifting."
Print or digital, however, the essence of reading is what remains important, Nicholls said: fixed black marks on a white page. “What I hope for, is a thriving growing passion for those marks on a page, whether that page is paper, or screen.”
Nicholls was followed by Rob Newlan, regional creative director for Facebook in the U.K., who urged publishers to look at Facebook’s 1.4 billion users as more than a massive market, but as individuals.
“1.4 billion is an enormous number, but what is truly exciting about it is the people behind it,” Newlan said. He offered examples of publishers who are stepping out in social media: for example, a digital cover of Time magazine that featured animation of Facebook's feed, or National Geographic’s outstanding Instagram feed. Such practices move those properties beyond publications, to engaging a community, he said, a vital shift.
“Think people over pixels,” Newlan stressed, warning publishers against getting “caught up in the technology” while missing its point: to connect people.
The morning closed with a talk from Hannah Telfer, group director for consumer and digital development at Penguin Random House U.K., who took stock of where publishing sits in its digital evolution. Riffing on an Alice in Wonderland theme, she characterized the digital era as the white rabbit everyone is chasing to some “unknown destination in a hurry.” And she praised the book business for how it has handled its digital transition compared to other businesses.
Telfer noted that six years ago, 100% of Penguin’s turnover came from “physical books or rights related to physical books,” but today around 25% of PRH revenue comes from "digital sources." And while she conceded that the transition has been “challenging and at times downright worrying,” the book business’s transition has come “right on schedule.” Other industries envy the robustness of publishing’s “physical product,” she noted, while digital has created new efficiencies and new markets for publishers.
Going forward, Telfer said Penguin Random House looks at three overarching questions: how will its products be noticed; how will they be paid; and how will they choose and publish the best works. She called copyright “the glue” that holds the industry together, and said the best way to fight for copyright was to make the the most of it, “to be as creative and multifaceted” in its use.
She urged publishers to be cautious, but not complacent. “We experiment, and we learn,” Telfer said. “But we also must be mindful of the potential impacts. We should not pull the tablecloth out from under the value we are able to capture for our authors in the name of experimentation alone.”
The seventh annual Publishing for Digital Minds Conference kicks off the London Book Fair, which officially opens Tuesday.
For more on the London Book Fair, check out the PW London Show Daily.