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Different Ways of Reading Books

4 December 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

Devised as an annual season-closer, the FutureBook conference is positioned by The Bookseller to focus on the digital context of the publishing business that’s more compact in the UK and, in some ways, more easily sorted than are other markets.

Presumably next year’s FutureBook Live will be seated in a non-European UK—something both emotionally and economically hard to face for many in the business. So it’s understandable that a kind of pause might have been in place at Friday’s event. This was nothing tangible, but it gave the day a gentle tremor, the perfectly logical sense for how much is unknown about what the creative industries of the UK and publishing in particular may encounter after Brexit takes place on March 29.

The Publishers Association’s annual report for 2017 showed British publishing to be dependent on book exports for 60 percent of its revenues. Thus the impact of exiting the EU could mean a lot to this industry’s fortunes. It hasn’t helped that the government’s efforts to put together a plan for Brexit have been so contentious and inconclusive.

. . . .

One of the most interesting and maybe telling developments in this market arrived in November 28, too late to be built into the day: the announcements that Penguin Random House and Hachette UK both are looking at placing offices in northern parts of the country—outposts beyond the citadel of London.

For more than a year, various industry players, some of them members of the Northern Fiction Alliance, have been arguing that too much of the industry’s control and activity is centered in London.

. . . .

Hachette UK CEO David Shelley, for example, was the most successful speaker of the day to get at Brexit and its darkening mysteries.

In the past, Shelley said, “As trade publishers, I think it’s fair to say that we usually thought of the UK first” in terms of choosing books to publish “and then hoped that the rest of the world would like them.”

But “our mindset today,” he said, “has completely transformed. In trade publishing, as has long been the case in education publishing and academic publishing, I feel that we now see ourselves as global publishers who happen to be domiciled in the UK, publishing books that appeal globally and reach consumers all around the world.

“We no longer think and talk so much about ‘home sales’ and ‘export sales,’ but one global market—which obviously is associated with Brexit, believe me.”

While discussing audiobooks—which, like edtech have their own track of programming at the FutureBook—Shelley talked of how streaming and downloads not only have enabled the distribution revolution that has fueled audio as the one dependable growth sector for years in publishing but also the integrity of the content. The old cassette-tape delivery of audio required almost everything to be abridged, he reminded us, which wasn’t good for publishers, authors, “or readers—I mean listeners.”

. . . .

Pan Macmillan’s digital director, Sara Lloyd, asked her panel on new platforms whether the day might come when the print copy of a book would become simply the merchandise accompanying digital sales.

. . . .

How comfortable is the industry delivering its content to Shelley’s listeners and Lloyd’s merchandise fans, if the actual act of long-form reading is a casualty in the process?

This is a different question from literacy, per se. The book business is terrific at supporting literacy charities and educational initiatives, scattering free books about for youngsters and adults and climbing onboard for reading campaigns.

But where are the consumer seminars on what it takes to read for hours? Where are the free symposia on the immersive/imaginative advantages to pursuing such an exercise? When do publishers and booksellers tackle the problem of an almost lost art that’s essential to the book world? Most people we’ve asked in publishing have said that they no longer read as much as they once did. And yet the industry keeps selling to a public it seems to believe is still ready for long-haul reading.

. . . .

From the States, Sourcebooks’ publisher and CEO Dominique Raccah was on hand in a closing keynote to echo that, talking about “the ways that innovation requires a change in our culture and in our thought patterns.”

. . . .

As it turned out, The Bookseller‘s Flatt had asked the key question at the top of the day as she opened the conference: “How on Earth do we make people care about what we do” in publishing—”and keep caring?”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests the types of discussions described in the OP would have done a lot more good had they been held in 2008 or 2009, when publishers might have had more room to maneuver and adjust to the impact of Amazon and ebooks.

Instead, in 2009, under Apple’s direction, most US traditional publishers illegally agreed on a price-fixing scheme which, until broken up by the United States Department of Justice, insuring that buying and reading an ebook was one of the more expensive things you could do for a couple of hours with your smartphone or tablet.

Amazon doubled-down on an earlier decision to make it easy for authors to self-publish their books and earn much higher royalty percentages if they priced their ebooks between $2.99 and $9.99. Amazon understood online consumers and price ranges better than anybody else, including Apple and very much including traditional publishers. Based on Amazon’s experience selling ebooks and everything else online, optimum online pricing for intangible goods would generate the most sales and income at lower rather than higher price-points.

Unlike the management of major publishers, Amazon understood that ebooks were nothing more than a well-organized group of electrons. Electrons were and are pretty much free.

Amazon was very good at handling groups of electrons.

Taking money from readers in exchange for sending them a bunch of electrons called an ebook could allow Amazon to earn money without anybody stuffing a product in a box and giving it to UPS. Amazon could earn this money while outsourcing the task of organizing electrons into ebooks to individual authors and publishers.

For Amazon, ebooks were an electrons-in/electrons-out business.

For publishers, electrons were pretty much of a mystery. (English majors, you know).

You couldn’t hold a bunch of electrons. You couldn’t put a collection of electrons you had never read on a bookshelf to impress your friends. You couldn’t print special editions of electrons, bind them with Corinthian leather and sell them at an even higher price.

As far as “How on Earth do we make people care about what we do” in publishing—”and keep caring?” is concerned, as far as most readers are concerned, the manner in which ebooks are created and distributed is near the bottom of their “Things to Care About” list, located below “Is this lettuce too far gone to eat?” and above “Did I remember to set Dancing with the Stars to record?”

Does anybody really care if a book is published by Sourcebooks or Hachette?

If you asked 100 people who published the last book they read, would any of them know? Well, maybe if one of them worked at Barnes & Noble and wasn’t overly distracted by their search for a new job.

As far as what most publishers really “do”, if he assumes “do” implies some value added, PG must admit he’s stumped.

Big Publishing, Non-US

11 Comments to “Different Ways of Reading Books”

  1. There are very few cases where I would choose a print book over digital at this point. My Kindle and assorted devices are just too convenient for keeping my place and always having my current reads right at my fingertips.

    If a book is in the used bin for fifty cents, then sure, I’ll grab it on impulse. That’s a lot cheaper than the price of some digital books I’ve bought lately – but the shelf space is a factor. Do I want to find a place to fit any new books? Then there’s the whole issue of some specialty books/collections only being offered as print due to lots of illustration or the whim of the publisher. I wish they were offered digitally, but if I can grab those heavy print versions for a deal, I do it.

    I’ve gone digital on TV shows, and books are no different. All I have to do is back up the file on a drive if I am afraid of it suddenly going away. As for piracy, personally I like digital books that are nicely formatted, and the pirated versions are just not worth the hassle in most cases. Just offer me a good digital product at a decent price! It’s not rocket science, publishing houses.

  2. For the first time in my years of reading this blog, my opinion differs from PG’s to a bone-shaking degree.

    To most people, the manner in which ebooks are created and distributed is below, “Did I remember to set Dancing with the Stars to record?”

  3. What struck me was the “non-European UK—something both emotionally and economically hard to face” bit.

    Are they cutting the anchor cables on the islands and setting sail away from the Continental Imperium? (Given the weather there this winter, I’m sure it would be tempting to many to relocate somewhere around the Azores…)

  4. “How on Earth do we make people care about what we do” in publishing—”and keep caring?”

    Ball bearing manufacturers don’t bother with these questions, yet most folks use ball bearings more than they use books.

    • If most ball bearings were sold direct to the consumer, that would be a good comparison.

      Ball-bearing manufacturers bother very much about getting their customers to care about what they do; and they do this by caring about what their customers do, and why they want ball bearings, and what their exact technical requirements and specifications are.

      Publishers haven’t the foggiest idea who their customers are; they’re too myopic to see past Ingrams and B&N. It’s not easy to get your customers to care about you on that basis.

      • But since publishers don’t sell direct to the consumers, they are back in the same ball park with ball bearings.

        Customers are they guys who give you the money. Consumers are the guys who use the goods.

  5. But where are the consumer seminars on what it takes to read for hours? Where are the free symposia on the immersive/imaginative advantages to pursuing such an exercise? When do publishers and booksellers tackle the problem of an almost lost art that’s essential to the book world?,/em>

    (Emphasis mine.)

    I can’t even. The depth of disconnectedness from the rest of the world those questions reveal is simply appalling. Especially that last question. Kind of makes it clear though that they’re only in the business for their benefit–IP squatting.

  6. “Different Ways of Reading Books”

    Strange, I read groups of words that hopefully the writer painted a nice story with.

    ‘What’ it was on never concerned me. Hardback/paperback (except my eyes aren’t focusing as well as they used to so fine print is a pain) CRT/LED on computers/laptops/netbooks and now eink. I don’t care how I get the words just that I get them. (and I have read for hours on each type of screen – though only after getting my first 1024 by 768 color CRT!)

    MYMV and you ignore the snake oil sellers of immersive and/or imaginative ways of parting you from your money.

  7. Delecourt, an imprint of HarperCollins, published the last book I read. It was a pretty good book by my favorite author, although I’m not the target demographic for this particular novel.

    It was well packaged, and I didn’t notice any grammatical or typographical errors.

    Do I CARE who publishes a book? Nope. But I certainly notice, and have since I was 8 years old.

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