This year’s BISG annual meeting, held April 26 at the Harvard Club in New York City, surveyed a range of trends across the publishing supply chain. A daylong series of panels examined printing and paper capacity, the rights market, workflow and workforce issues, and book sales, and it featured an entertaining and thoughtful keynote address by Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn.
Tamblyn’s address, titled “Leaving Money on the Table,” combined wit and wisdom for a lively presentation focused on increasing book sales. Rakuten Kobo, he said, has focused on a global strategy, and the company has more than 35 million customers outside the U.S. He challenged the conventional wisdom that e-book sales are declining, saying that “25% of e-book sales are outside of traditional publishing.” Publishers are in competition with platforms such as Facebook, Netflix, and YouTube for consumer attention, he stressed, adding, “It is a war of books vs. everything else.”
Tamblyn advised publishers to localize the timing of book releases overseas (“Use a sensible local time”); localize prices (“Straight currency conversion doesn’t work”); test price elasticity (“Pricing matters; indie authors tweak prices constantly”); offer e-book rights aggressively (“English sells everywhere”); and use consistent and accurate book series data (“Series are 52% of our sales”).
Janet McCarthy Grimm, a v-p at Lindenmeyr Book Publishing Papers, and Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturing Institute, kicked off the meeting with an update on challenges related to paper and printing capacity. McCarthy said 2018 was a “perfect storm,” combining “a resurgence in demand for print books” with a dramatic decline in paper capacity that “caught the industry by surprise.”
Grimm described a domestic paper market in transition, as mills shift production away from paper for books to growing demand for paper for packaging. And the business is facing a general shortage of labor that prevents expansion.
Baehr identified similar challenges in printing capacity, pointing to a lack of investment in new facilities and a labor shortfall.
Grimm and Baehr called on the publishing industry to begin a group dialogue—with participation from BISG and the Book Industry Guild of New York—on ways to address ongoing challenges facing printing and paper supply.
In a discussion on the rights market, panelist Debbie Engel, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt v-p, director of sub rights, said that the biggest changes in the field relate to audio rights. At one time, she noted, “audio rights were no big deal, but interest in audio has spiked.”
Ginger Clark, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, cited the popularity of podcasts and the rise of podcast deals as evidence that consumers are moving from reading books to listening to books. There’s growth in demand for audio rights from foreign markets as well, she added, pointing to China and Poland as examples.
Technology hasn’t necessarily created new kinds of rights, but it has changed how rights work is done, according to panelist Lance Fitzgerald, v-p and director of sub rights at Penguin Random House. “We can get materials out quickly, and it’s easy to access every book ever published.”
Clark emphasized the continuing need for face-to-face relationships among rights market players, despite the impact of technology. “We need to go to book fairs and connect—not everyone has docuSign,” she said.
The rights panelists all expressed a general wariness about the subscription access model. “We don’t understand the financial model,” Fitzgerald said. The panel also called for a better way to share rights data, suggesting a “UN or BISG” for data sharing and alluding to the need to develop an industrywide rights platform.
On the panel examining workflow efficiencies, Michelle Yu, HMH director of business operations, gave a presentation on the house’s use of robotics process automation, AI-driven technology, such as Automation Anywhere, aimed at automating repeatable mundane tasks. Yu emphasized that HMH’s use of RPA “is not trying to get rid of jobs”; its purpose is to save employees time and allow them to “do more with less, freeing people up to do more interesting tasks.” HMH began using the software last year to scrape online data about production shipment schedules and to automatically generate emails about scheduling and delivery.
Dennis Abboud Jr., senior director of sales at Readerlink, was part of a panel focused on sales that featured Margaret Harrison, director of digital services at Ingram Content Group, and Bradley Metrock, executive director of Digital Book World. Abboud pointed to a “reemphasis on books” by the distributor and cited data showing that “the demand for physical books is strong.”
The panel emphasized the continuing importance of good metadata and the growing popularity of audio and voice technology, such as Alexa. Voice technology, Metrock said, is “not a fad,” though he acknowledged consumer concerns over privacy issues and data breaches.