Today, I sat through several general sessions and panels at Digital Book World 2012. It was an enlightening experience for me, and several themes emerged over the course of the day.
Rather than talking about each session, and giving you a blippy blow-by-blow report, I'd like to talk about five major topics and give you my .02 on what I heard. If you want to see my exact notes from each session, they are here.
As Net Minds is more of a tech startup than a publishing concern, I came to the conference knowing no one. So my impressions aren't tarnished by my job, living in NYC or practicing inside the industry. Maybe that will differentiate this report from others you'll find at the event hashtag.
According to James McQuivey at Forrester, 15% of all book sales were digital in 2011, which is less than predicted at last year's events. He reported that 25 million people own an eReader and another 34 million have a tablet. There's some overlap, as with my household, but still – that's a big number.
During Kelly Gallagher's presentation, he revealed research from R.R. Bowker's ongoing surveys into consumer trends with eBooks. He suggested that 2010 saw 'hockey stick' adoption (exponential) but 2011 it slowed down to merely incremental. He suggested that the early adopters are reading digitally, but now the challenge is to find the mainstream market. He cited their survey's most amazing finding: 41% say they will never use an eReader, or if they do, it will be sporadically. Personally, I reject surveys like this, because often times the respondents are trying to make a point with their answers, and their answers are knee jerk. If you don't believe me, just read Innovator's Dilemma, where you'll discover that entire industries are disrupted because they asked customers what they wanted or what they planned to do – and then were brutally surprised by what eventually happened in the market.
What I do take away from all of this discussion is that the quality of eBooks needs to improve, from major publisher (conversion) to self-published author (content). There is a chance that eBooks could be to major house print books what the iTunes Apps are to Android (ghetto). There are genres where eBooks aren't yet making a big dent like Art, Cooking or non-fiction advice and business. But then again, we are early in this game, and one fact revealed by Gallagher is stunning: After using an eReader for 7-12 months, the consumer reduces print purchase to almost zero. Zero.
Over the last century, publishers have developed a core competency of managing retail accounts like Barnes and Noble. They have sales forces, cooperative marketing programs and in-store display teams that help authors book reach readers. With the closing of Borders and the reduction of BN's shelf-space, this game is up. With eBooks, there is unlimited shelf space BUT that also means that there are unlimited choices for consumers. So it's harder than ever for a book to break on through. This means that the new competency that publishers need to develop, and quickly, is driving discoverability.
To quote from Double Rainbow, 'what does this mean?' Publishers need to invest in people and partners that understand metadata, search engine optimization (down to the press release), semantics and social media monitoring. These are all new domains for them, and it's likely they'll bring in the nose ring crowd like their retail partners did ten years ago.
One point made by a publishing CEO that I must comment on: Best seller lists on Amazon or New York Times are great discoverability drivers. This is true, but this is an elitist play, where the list is clogged by deep-pockets list-gamers. You may not know this, but many non-fiction authors buy their way to the top of the lists via aggressive pre-order, self-purchase and strategically fulfilled distribution. That can't last forever.
Conference chair Mike Shatzkin makes a good point: In the past, pricing was a 'set it and forget it' practice. But now, with the advent of .99 cent books, publishers need to approach pricing eBooks very strategically. Historically, publishers used their print price to calculate their digital price, but with the advent of eFirst books (non-print), you have to start from scratch and you'd better be right! One panelist suggested that when a book is cheap, readers are often suspicious of the quality. Again, new core competencies for pricing will need to be developed. Read the book, The Price Of Everything for more insight into this quagmire.
During the intriguing "What Publishers Can Learn From Romance" panel, one point came up that bears discussion: Length of work VS price. Right now, it's hard for the consumer to know what they are buying in terms of length. With print, you could weigh it in your hand or examine the page count. One panelist said readers were guessing based on the file size (with non-DRM books, you can measure this, and according to the panel, that's 90% of the eBook romance market!). Publishers need to do a better job of marketing the value of the book. I would suggest they employ an equivalent page count metric or even indicate how many hours of reading the eBook offers.
The best session I attended was on Awareness Marketing. It included an all-star lineup of major publisher marketing executives. They all talked about the importance of author's having a platform – as publishers can't seem to build one themselves (except for the now-digital-only Domino Project).
Since traditional publishers now have a hole in their business model because of an 80 year tradition of returns (see my video: The Returns Problem), they can't afford midlist in the new economic reality. So they need to see a platform to get really excited about an author. Much like we've seen with the music industry, gone are the days of author development…really. Sure, if an author breaks out, major publishers will circle around them and help, but for those seeking their first deal, a great manuscript will get you the $10,000.00 if you buy 1000 of your books offer that's going around.
For authors, the takeaway is sobering: Invest 50% of your time building a following that's highly engaged. If you spend 100% of your time just writing great words, your proposal will likely be sniffed at by most houses.
Rick Joyce of Perseus talked about how they are investing in social media monitoring (great idea) to tap into big conversations around books, topics or interests. Using tools like Radian 6, they can sort through conversations for relevance and influence, and potentially achieve the equivalent of a big PR hit on NPR or the Today Show. He even employed a quote to describe this approach: "Saddle up your horses and ride to the gunfire."
If you'd like to listen to the entire session, you can download it here.
I'm not a techie, so I won't attempt to go too deep here except to say that work flow management is critical for publishers to make the leap from print to digital. After talking to a dozen people at the event, it is clear that XML proficiency and investments are critical to being scalable and successful in this domain. It's not easy to convert the Word document coming from editorial into the eBooks we are demanding as consumers. Backlist formats for print are just as tricky to convert. For several publishers, their first 'poor products' are eBooks, not because of content, but because of how their work flow is configured.
It's been a heady day, that's for sure, but exciting for anyone in the industry from author to publisher. I was happy to see that, unlike the music industry ten years ago, major publishers aren't trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Instead, they are sizing up the genie, as well as his likely growth over the next few years.
Tim is a bestselling author and former Yahoo! executive with a mission to disrupt the traditional publishing and self-publishing industries and share knowledge with authors looking to publish and market high-quality books.Follow @sanderssays