In programming this year’s FutureBook Conference (4th December), I’ve had the privilege of discussing publishing’s digital future with numerous people from across the sector. The conversations, all done for the purposes of background, have informed both the direction of the conference and my understanding of where the industry is headed.
Here are 3 conclusions, and how they the fit into the FutureBook Conference 2015.
1) Product innovation is not dead: in fact I believe we are just beginning to see a new wave of different types of books, from the Harry Potter enhanced iBooks to Hachette’s app programme. But what we think of as the next phase of ‘the book’ needs to broaden. What Asi Sharabi has done with Lost My Name and what Quarto is doing with This is Your Cookbook, shows that new types of books need not only be confined to digital. New technologies change all sorts of things, and printing (particularly print-on-demand) is only just beginning to be explored by publishers (and consumers). We will see more developments in the cross-over between digital and print, as well as more digital only solutions.
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2) Agency is not killing the e-book market, but it is creating opportunities as the big groups transition: the first implementation of agency was an important shift for publishers at a time when they needed to take some control back over the e-book market, and prevent Amazon entirely killing off the competition. It worked, to varying degrees. The second coming of agency looks more problematic – prices have lowered during the interim ($9.99 nows looks a decent price for some books) and Amazon is no less powerful. Ironically, it is Amazon that is now pushing publishers to agency because the Seattle giant no longer wishes to take the hit on dramatically lowered e-book prices. This throws the challenge back to agency publishers, and it is not easily resolvable. The Kindle platform now sells many more e-books at very low prices, than it does at the higher end. We often talk about how publishing avoided going through that destructive Napster period music publishers faced: but actually the dramatic devaluation of content now prevalent on the Kindle represents an acute challenge for everyone. If publishers cannot sell e-books at volume at prices that support their wider business, then this transition to digital suddenly looks to have a sting in its tail. That said, it also represents huge opportunities for indie writers, e-book only publishers, and new content businesses — or in fact anyone more concerned with growing e-book sales than servicing their over-head.
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3) Mobile is going to impact this sector hard. As I wrote last week in relation to FutureBook’s book tech showcase, the transition to mobile reading and platforms is going to change and alter this industry irrevocably. As one mobile expert said to me recently, just measure how many times you use your mobile in an hour, and you’ll have some perspective on how important this will become for the content businesses. Over the past few months, Harry Potter website Pottermore has shown a glimpse of this future, with a mobile-first relaunch of its website, and the launch of Harry Potter enhanced iBooks. But that is not an end to it, from new retailing opportunities to new content platforms mobile already offers a different way for authors, publishers and readers to interact. There is a sense that publishers do not yet get this. Can this be true?