The view from Frankfurt 2010: who controls the ebook business?

The view from Frankfurt

Victoria Barnsley and Mike Shatzkin discuss the risks posed by Amazon and the need for publishers to focus on readers. So little has changed…

One of the most in-demand events at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair was Friday’s round-table discussion: The eBook Business: Who’s in Control? Entry was so carefully restricted that even panel member Victoria Barnsley, Chief Executive of HarperCollins, struggled at first to make her way past security and into the venue.

Alongside Barnsley on a formidably eminent panel were maverick digital opinion-former Mike Shatzkin, Ronald Schild of Libreka, and moderator Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association.

Discussion began with Shatzkin’s acknowledgement that the publishing industry had already come alarmingly close to losing the battle for control of the ebook business. Amazon had brought to the digital marketplace the same short-term tactics and long-term strategy they’d used to win control of online print bookselling, selling initially at cost in order to build a customer list that would only begin to provide profits in the much longer term. Only the belated entry into the marketplace of players such as Apple, instating an agency model that brought margin back into the equation, had prevented Amazon from gaining complete control over the market almost at its birth.

Conversation then moved on from the recent past to the immediate future of the industry. The panel agreed that, with ebooks currently accounting for approximately 15% of trade sales in the United States, it no longer made any sense to have a separate strategy for ebooks: digital had instead to be at the heart of a more general publishing strategy. Barnsley suggested that the UK market would follow the US experience (Harper, she said, had budgeted for 3% this year), and predicted that the proportion of ebooks could well reach 50% within five years. (Germany, Schild noted, was currently about three years behind the US, at under 1% of sales, giving German publishers an opportunity to work together to defend their market before the big international players became involved.)

At this point, Mike Shatzkin made the encouraging suggestion that the rise of ebooks might actually increase the total numbers of books sold, rather than just cannibalizing the existing market for print. One publisher he’d spoken to, he told us, had chosen a selection of its backlist print titles, then monitored their sales in both print and electronic form after they’d been published as ebooks. The total sales of these titles had outperformed expectations to such an extent that only 60% of their digital sales could be assumed to have taken place had they only been available as print: the other 40%, it appeared, were new. Though, as Eoin Purcell has noted on Twitter, it remains to be seen whether this increase might be merely a short-term phenomenon caused by libraries and individuals replacing their existing print holdings with ebooks, this was more heartening news than many had been anticipating.

A more serious threat to the publishing industry than digitisation was the imminent demise of the bookstore, warned Shatzkin, who predicted that shelf-space in bookstores would halve from present levels. Barnsley, by contrast, suggested that shelf-space had always been scarce, and that the direct interaction with readers made possible by digital publishing would actually help to alleviate the problem. The biggest challenge ahead of publishers, she felt, would be adjusting to the fact that theirs was now a customer-facing business: editors, for instance, would need to become more like marketing staff. Shatzkin agreed that a focus on the customer would be vital: the relationship with the reader would ultimately be of even greater importance to publishers than control of copyrights. It would be whoever got the eyeballs and the trust, he assured the audience, that would end up controlling the ebook business.

Originally published by FutureBook on 10 October 2010

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