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Digitisation – a report from the London Book Fair - Part 1


Using the web to increase sales

Many of the excellent seminars on offer as part of the London Book Fair dealt with digitisation, the subject of the moment as far as the book world is concerned. Most of the sessions presented approaches to the subject intended for publishers and booksellers attending the Fair, but these two articles will provide a summary and focus on issues most relevant to writers.

Using the web to increase sales

New ideas about using the web to increase sales were also extensively covered, with many examples offered of specific approaches to reach readers online.

New technologies included Otodio personal interactive audio, a new technology that allows any text document to be published in a form that enables it to be played as an audio file on a laptop or mobile phone. The document can still be searched and manipulated as a text file. The time-consuming downloading of large audio files is avoided by using local technology. Otodio will allow publishers to develop a new revenue stream by re-tailoring their existing content into new Otodio offerings.

Ros Lawler, Head of Technology at Random House, talked about the author mini-sites the publisher has been launching, with 100 up in the last year. Diet Girl has a Facebook blog, Terry Pratchett has thousands of fans coming to his page on Bebo, and MySpace and Second Life have also been used.

David Swarbrick, Group Sales and Marketing Director of HarperCollins UK, said that their research showed that 75% of readers were online and one in three of them were active on social networking sites. The company’s book sales on the web were up 39% in volume over four years, suggesting that there may be much more room for growth in that area.

Swarbrick said digital marketing provides the opportunity for direct contact with audiences, and brands can now achieve much more focused communication, talking with consumers, rather than at them. Talking about HarperCollins’ 4,000 strong book buyer panel, he said that 36% believe the Internet has had a positive effect on their book reading and 66% say that the Internet is ‘already helping me to explore books’.

He noted that the Internet facilitates sharing of content, but publishers do have to accept that they will get both good and bad feedback. Reading groups which read books offline and share them online are another way of developing interest in books.

The US and digitisation

In a seminar entitled America in the Digital Age, Michael Healy of Book Industry Standards Group said that American publishers were becoming more confident about ebooks. Frontlist, ie new, titles are now ‘born digital’, meaning that they can be offered in fragmented form or merged with other publishers’ content if required.

Under changes in content development, he said that there would be more user-generated content but also more experimentation with formats. The romance publisher Harlequin’s Spice Briefs are stories of 20 to 50 pages retailing at $2.99 and available in all sorts of formats. This list had attracted new authors, benefited from short production times, revived the short story and turned on its head the idea that women are less attracted to the Internet than men.

Healy said that publishers needed to build communities of brand amongst authors, before authors do it for themselves. The pricing strategy for ebooks still needed to be worked out, but Amazon had laid down a marker by pricing all audiobooks at $9.99 with free delivery, which will have its own effect on pricing in general if they manage to establish the Kindle.

On print on demand the Espresso book machine is currently on a small scale only, with 8 to 10 minutes taken to print a book and only ten bookselling outlets piloting the project.

In terms of content protection Random House US are offering free audio downloads. Amazon is saying they would consider offering material free of digital rights management (ie no money would be paid to the author) if the consumer wanted it.

Healy’s overview was that there would be further innovation and experimentation. At the moment we are in the midst of far-reaching change, with shifting boundaries. As the technology becomes more accessible there will be more shifts and twists.

Why should publishers be digital?

Maja Thomas, Senior Vice-President of Digital Publishing for Hachette US said: 'Why should publishers be digital?' She said she thought that efficiency and good marketing would increase digital sales eventually. There is a danger of publishers being disintermediated by other parties, whether agents, authors or booksellers, working round them. Widgets can be used to provide access to content in the digital warehouse. Customers can flip through an online catalogue before they buy, meaning that this catalogue can be customised. It is very flexible and can serve customers who prefer to have control of their own content. She maintains that this not the way to bring in light readers: ‘The people who are interested in digital media are not non-readers but hyper-readers.’

The $1 billion total US audiobook market has been maintaining 61% annual compound growth. The ebook market is projected to have grown to $80 million in 2007. HarperCollins and Hachette US both used LibreDigital to make widgets, but a widget, linking in to digitised material on the book, is only a doorway into a house which has to be built first. All the big publishers have been investing heavily in building digital warehouses.

Thomas said that HarperColllins haven’t found that the younger part of the market adopts sooner and it has been rather the reverse with audio and ebooks, although this may be because the book audience is older than the average.

Part 2 of Digitisation at the London Book Fair

Otodio website

© Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage. 2008