Sweden’s Jacob Dalborg is CEO of Bonnier Books.
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Ahead of his CEO Talk interview at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club on October 19, Publishing Perspectives asked for his views on the industry from where he sits in Bonnier’s top management in Stockholm.
Publishing Perspectives: After years of noise about digital disruption, does 2016 seem quieter in publishing?
Jacob Dalborg: I think everyone has come to terms with the fact that digitization is not necessarily evil. It’s generally accepted that it carries great opportunity.
The term “disruption” itself, when used in a publishing context, is in my opinion more often just a buzzword than a statement of facts. In reality, e.g. digital commerce only represent more selling points, not something very new and different from what we have always dealt with.
I think of publishing as a storytelling business before anything else. Our job has never been to publish as many books as possible, but to find and publish exactly the right books and to develop authors and authorships.
In that sense, I am not even sure we have had any dramatic disruption in the proper sense of that word. People love to read stories, and they always have. Actually, people read and write more than they have ever done before. They read books and everything else. The format in which we publish our stories does not–and should not–matter that much to us or to our readers. I belong to those who actually believe that content is king.
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PP: Ebooks, e-readers and mobile devices, as well as large-scale retailers like Amazon have all changed the business over the last decade. Where do you think the most important innovation takes place today?
JD: Typically, it’s not in the products themselves that you’ll find the innovation. There are of course still improvements to be done and changes to be made. As a publisher, I love ebooks because once they’re produced, you have them available forever, they have no inventory. However, the core publishing activities of acquiring, editing and publishing stories remain the same. To the consumer, the reading experience is not very different.
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PP: You mentioned that people write more than they ever have. Will you share your thoughts on self-publishing?
JD: Unfortunately, self-published books don’t figure into industry statistics. That would help us estimate the actual effect of it.
As we’ve traditionally worked in a market of carefully selected ranges of titles, it’s clear that the abundant number of titles “out there” is a new kind of challenge for publishers. How can we stay top-of-mind in this significantly larger amount of content?
In addition, all publishers should definitely look into the self-published market to identify the best authors and offer them their core service of author development. I am sure that we’re missing several good authors right now.
Finally, I would recommend anybody whose book has been rejected by a publisher or an agent, to self-publish. That will give you all the tools you need to build your own brand and reader relations and it can get you both feedback and attention. A publisher might find you and contact you.
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PP: It’s often said that publishers should learn from other industries like the music industry, television or newspapers. How relevant do you find this advice? Is it just a cliché or are there major lessons there for us?
JD: To answer that question, it’s important to take the differences between the industries into account. You might say that those other industries were more truly disrupted by digitization and the advent of the Internet.
The news industry–and of course printed newspapers in particular–have been challenged by the immediacy of Internet distribution. Where distribution of news in the broadest sense followed fixed schedules and either publication or broadcast at regular intervals, they’re now distributed everywhere as soon as something happens.
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When it comes to music, film and television, their consumption were bound to stationary devices like gramophones, TVs or cinemas. The ability to carry them with you and watch or listen on a truly portable device has seriously changed the demand and behavior around those products.
But none of these phenomena has had a huge importance for books.
First, their production time can be very long and most often they don’t lose their relevance if they’re not published on a specific date.
Second, books have always been mobile. The promise of carrying “hundreds of books” with you on your Kindle is fine, but maybe not very relevant. Most people are happy with bringing a few paperbacks with them on vacation. Therefore, ebooks don’t constitute a very different experience for the readers. That may very well be the reason that the market share of ebooks isn’t growing so fast.
Only in English-speaking countries do we see the ebook market share at about 20 to 25 percent. In Germany, ebooks have about 10 percent of the market, and everywhere else, it’s below 5 percent. I believe that it’s not the medium itself but more likely Amazon’s persistent pushing of ebooks to the market that has caused the growth of market shares in the US, the UK, and Germany.