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Digitisation – a report from the London Book Fair - Part 2


Digitisation opportunities for publishers

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. Part 1

Digitisation opportunities for publishers

Dominique Raccah of US independent publisher Sourcebooks gave a fascinating insight on digitisation and the independent publisher. The company publishes 320 books a year with 95 staff. She said the independent publishing sector is the fastest-growing in the US. The six big publishers have 54% of the market, with the 30 largest independents accounting for 11%, but the latter are growing almost twice as fast.

At Sourcebooks they have found that digitisation requires new skill-sets – mastering your metadata, introducing e-books into the product mix, and evolving broader digital strategies. Very few publishers are in charge of their metadata and nobody is currently managing this, but she said it is essential for publishers to develop a very good process to deal with the data.

Raccah said that digitisation has process shift implications for every part of the publishing process. Publishers will need to develop new business models, connecting differently with customers. As mentioned last week, Harlequin are well ahead on the digital curve and actively support e-books, selling them on a subscription basis to romance readers. Subscribers get two free e-books and are then sent 4-6 more at the start of each month before they are released in print form.

Ellora’s Cave sells its erotic romance as e-books only, but they are now so successful at providing an author-based community that they sell print on demand editions as well. In fact they’ve now bought a printing press but are making some short fiction available only in e-book form.

On the reference side, Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary went online in 1996 in a free version, leading to closer contact with the customer. The University of Chicago’s famous Chicago Manual of Style is online and customers can develop ‘my manual’, a customised style guide.

Taking this further, O’Reilly has taken almost everything online – creating an extensive technical community, making content from the print versions of its books available on subscription with pdfs, chapter plans, short e-books and e-books. The effect is that they have enlarged the term of publisher to cover an active online community which learns from its members.

Similarly Brook Noel, a self-publisher promoting her book The Change Your Life Challenge, has developed an online model with a community, classes, free e-books and meetings in coffee-shops and so on. The publisher’s starting point needs to be: ‘Who is your target audience?’ Raccah said digitisation is inevitable, requiring publishers to develop new skill-sets and processes, and to revise their basic business models. Many publishers will find themselves running two or more business-exploring models. This offers a world of opportunity for publishers of all kinds.

Raccah said it was easy to convince authors and agents to give digital rights if you have a plan for them. On the Sourcebooks site they were developing the idea of poetry as an oral tradition by publishing book and audio packages. By developing a poetry portal they were reaching more readers.

What next?

Mike Shatzkin of the Idealogical Company gave an overview of the current state of play in digital technology. He said that in the 20th century the dominant media had been ‘horizontal’ and format specific. The 21st century would see a shift as media became vertical and format-agnostic. What this meant was that customers for a book about knitting would be reached through ‘vertical’channels. An example is Nike, which is reorganising around sport rather than trainers to provide more coherent content for customers.

Shatzkin said that he thought the pieces were in place for substantial change in four ways:

  1. Books were being digitised, including the backlist.
  2. Ingram and LibreDigital are already ‘running’ in the US.
  3. E-book growth is real and there are new e-publishing standards.
  4. Tagging schemes abound to tag data.
  5. There are many cross-media plays and the first generation social networking sites, which were horizontal, will be replaced by new ones which are vertical.

The evolving retailer landscape

  1. Shatzkin said that Amazon’s Booksurge has enabled writers to envisage a situation where they can cut publishers out.
  2. Amazon is in a commanding position with online book buyers and has sent a shot across the bows at Ingram, the biggest POD operator.
  3., with its dominance of the US audio market, is now owned by Amazon.
  4. Amazon’s Kindle has enabled it to lock in the market, with 90,000 titles available
  5. The Barnes and Noble share of web book sales is only 10% and Amazon is building its ‘Look inside’ programme.

But current conditions could lead to a great dispersal of retail on the web, which would be good news for publishers and could also weaken Amazon’s dominance.

For libraries borrowing an e-book is just as good as buying one, since most people only want it once.

Shatzkin’s view is that over the next year there will be a response to the Kindle; a decline in horizontal media; the first vertical content and community plays will drive the economics of print publishing; cookbooks will start being assembled by the consumer; in travel books you will be able to create your own book; and large print will boom because it is easy to deliver and the baby boomers will provide a market.

He said he thought that trade (general) publishing, which is leveraged through intermediaries such as agents and booksellers, is likely to become much more fragmented in the future. This passing of control from the publisher to the consumer is what the Internet is all about.

Part 1 of Digitisation at the London Book Fair


Ellora's Cave

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary

Chicago Manual of Style


The Change Your Life Challenge


© Chris Holifield 2008