When Bradley Metrock took over Digital Book World, he promised to create an event that would attract a wide range of people involved in book publishing and related areas. That’s what happened at this year’s DBW—the second since Metrock acquired the conference from F + W in 2017—which ran September 10–12 in Nashville and attracted 1,000 participants.
To meet the expectations of attendees, who ranged from new and experienced publishers to experts in fields such as voice technology, Metrock organized about 60 panels that included six tracks—Academic Book World, Data Book World, Market Book World, New Media Book World, Print Book World, and Production Book World—as well as a host of general sessions. Though his approach provided something for everyone, some attendees thought the conference could have been more focused. “The sessions are hit or miss,” said one attendee, who preferred not be identified. She quickly added, however, that DBW “was a good place to network.”
Metrock invited speakers from such companies as the AI Leadership Institute, Audible, and ReaderBound, but it was Mike Shatzkin, who programmed the first DBW, who provided an overview of how publishing has evolved and made a prediction on what the next disruption for traditional publishers will be. Shatzkin said that 20 years ago, online sales represented about 5% of book sales; today that share is approximately 40%, while the percentage of business controlled by the bookstore chains has fallen from roughly 30%–40% to about 10%. E-books now represent about 20% of overall sales, and the amount of shelf space devoted to books at bookstores has declined. Even with the revival of independent bookstores, there are still fewer of them than there were 20 years ago, Shatzkin maintained. Those changes have made mass merchandisers more important to publishers, especially for commercial titles.
The digital shift has been a bonanza to Amazon, Shatzkin said, noting that it was among the first companies to realize the potential of self-publishing and that its aggressive moves in that area have created what he called two publishing worlds: self-publishing and commercial publishing. The $2.99–$4.99 price for most titles self-published on Kindle has eaten into the sales of a number of publishers’ genres, Shatzkin added, while sales of nonfiction books are losing ground to YouTube.
Despite challenges from different media, books still bring credibility to authors, and that is why Shatzkin believes that the next major disruption to traditional publishers will come from corporate publishing. With Ingram having established a worldwide infrastructure that can print and distribute books, and with numerous publishing employees out of work, it is easy for corporations to produce books that burnish their brands, he said. Companies and organization such as AARP, Goldman Sachs, and IBM can all publish books to highlight their operations, Shatzkin added. “Books will become components of brand marketing efforts.”
Another industry veteran who charted the course of digital publishing was Micah Bowers of Bluefire, which, among other products, created the Bluefire Reader e-book app. The publishing industry, particularly the digital segment, is at an interesting juncture, Bowers said, explaining that consolidation and fewer companies entering the e-book space have left a handful of players in monopoly positions—a fact that he sees as deeply concerning. As for Bluefire, Bowers said he is moving it into such areas as corporate publishing, content marketing, and higher education, where digital efforts “are a mess.”
Updating the Copyright Office
The ongoing effort to turn the U.S. Copyright Office into a “digital copyright office” was the subject of a quick presentation by Karyn Temple, the register of copyrights. She said that the goal of the makeover is to make the system more user-friendly and easier to navigate. The overhaul of the office will not likely be completed until 2024, she noted, as the office needed to begin from scratch after an “off-the-shelf” system failed to deliver the necessary results.
The Copyright Office is implementing what Temple called the Enterprise Copyright Systems, and she said that, though full implementation is still a few years away, it has made progress in a number of areas, adding that 41 million card images are now available online. She urged anyone at the conference who works with the Copyright Office to provide feedback (at copyright.gov) on what it has done already and suggestions about improvements that they would like to see.
A number of panelists discussed the opportunities that smart speakers such as Alexa present for publishers not only to develop stories but to help users discover their titles as well. Metrock warned that if a publisher is looking to do the latter, it should have someone test the different speakers, since their responses to commands are not always accurate.
Matt Keller, v-p of business development at Capstone, was on hand to describe the publisher’s experience working with Amazon to develop “skills” (voice-controlled apps) for Alexa. The company created an in-house team to develop the programs, which were based on 50 You Choose Books titles. Keller said Capstone, with the help of Earplay, a company that produces voice-first interactive audio, created about 450 hours of audio for Alexa and is ready to do more.
“The smart speaker rate of adoption is moving very fast,” Keller noted, advising publishers that if they haven’t started developing content for those platforms already, they should. He also said that the Alexa skills market is already becoming crowded, estimating that there are already 80,000 skills available.
Next year’s DBW is set for Nashville, September 14–17.