After nearly decade of digital transition, publishers are beginning to mark how far they've traveled. This year's IDPF Digital Book 2015 offered assessments from publishing startups such as Michael Bhaskar's Canelo Publishing and from publishing veterans like Richard Charkin, Bloomsbury publishing director, and Ken Michaels, Macmillan Education CEO.
Speakers grappled with the concept of "Putting Readers First"—the new mantra of publishing in the digital age—and offered reactions to this new mandate and how it has been integrated into their business models.
Bhaskar, director of publishing at Canelo Publishing, examined the rise of the term "curation" and how it shapes the views of a new generation of publishing startups. Bhaskar, who also has a book coming from Little, Brown, called The Power of Selection, claims that the process of curation—"selecting and arranging to add value"—defines book publishing and market power today and in the future. He claims that overproduction—he says e-books and the rise of self-publishing have left us awash in books no one want to read—has shifted the power in the book market to readers.
"In an era of overproduction the key curators are people. Book discovery is about people, it's reader-centered. This is an unprecedented change." To be sure, Bhaskar wasn't always perfectly clear about the specifics of this change, other than it will likely lead to "fewer but better books."
Bloomsbury's Charkin opened his presentation, "Can We Put Readers First on a Global Scale?," by announcing that he disagreed with Bhaskar. "The power in publishing has moved to authors," he said. Charkin emphasizes that the real change has been away from "serving retailers" to understanding that "authors are our customers." Charkin acknowledges the importance of readers, while also understanding that during a time when authors have a variety of options to publish directly to readers, publishers need to focus on authors if they expect to keep them.
He went on to offer a list of business principles for publishers: every book is important, every author is unique, every reader is unique, and every child needs books because they are the customers of the future.
While Bhaskar could be a bit abstract, Charkin certainly aimed for the practical. He noted that most people in the world couldn't afford even the cheapest books from the west, and there's a language barrier to global readers—80% of digital books are in English. Piracy and censorship loom over publishers more than ever, and the formerly simple publishing supply chain has become woefully complex. He cautioned that the primary goal of any publisher was "to connect books to readers and stay in business."
Probably the best illustration about engaging readers in new ways came from author and game designer Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They can Change the World; and the forthcoming Super Better). She described how gaming produces certain emotions that traditional book reading, arguably, does not.
For example she discussed a 2011 gaming project she produced in partnership with the New York Public Library, called Find The Future, based on the iconic NYPL Schwarzman building. The game was played by 500 teenagers who spent the night in the library looking for 100 objects that were hidden in books and displays and tagged with QR codes; students searched for the items (using mobile phones) and wrote short passages about them. These were then collected to create a mammoth book with more than 1,180 stories that was printed and bound on the premises that night.
The executive panel, themed "Taking it to the Reader," moderated by PW editor-in-chief Jim Milliot, also surveyed the new publishing landscape and a new social phobia called, "nomophobia," said Macmillan Education CEO Ken Michaels, who defined it as "the fear of being without a wireless mobile devices, of being unconnected." We live, he said, in a publishing age where everything must be available on every device and in every channel. "Tagged, transportable and relevant."
Chantal Restivo-Alessi, HarperCollins chief digital officer, and Liz Perl, S&S chief marketing officer, added updates on the transformation of digital buzz concepts into workflows and tools in their businesses. Once again, authors were primary. "We're here to serve authors, not just the consumer, " Restivo-Alessi said. But she noted the importance of taking risks (in print and digital) on new business models like subscription e-books. "We need to be honest about what works and what doesn't. We can measure everything now so we have to be honest and learn from mistakes."
Perl emphasized that the big publishers are "not dinosaurs. Everybody gets it, we want to reach readers." Leaving Bill McCoy, IDPF executive director, to close the morning session with that comment that, "if publishers are dinosaurs, they're evolving."