What can other industries teach us about digital? (2011 London Book Fair Digital Conference Part I)

In 2011, publishing was still looking nervously towards other industries for advice, as evidenced by the number of speakers at the 2011 London Book Fair digital conference drawn from the music and video industries. It was also the year of Evan Schnittmann’s controversial, if ultimately mostly accurate, assertion that the enhanced ebook was dead. the conference was also notable for a rare appearance from a representative from Amazon, even if he was – characteristically – only willing to share data from third parties. And Michael Tamblyn, formerly of Shortcovers, now of Kobo, made a reappearance.

Appropriately enough for an industry anxious to learn whether the rise of digital will lead to its regeneration or extermination, this year’s London Book Fair Digital Conference took place in the same Olympia building as the BBC’s Doctor Who exhibition.

The first two speakers, both from outside publishing, offered visions of alternative business models for the industry. Michael Comish, CEO of UK video-on-demand service Blinkbox, stressed the benefits of adopting a model combining advertising with free and paid access. Advertising alone could not bankroll a business, but it would support the provision of a limited free service that could then be used to establish a core of customers. Said customers, having enjoyed a good experience of free content, would then be far more likely to hand over their credit card details and sign up for a paid service.

One of the more prominent exemplars of such a mixed business model is Spotify, mentioned also by the second speaker, Paul Brindley, CEO of Music Ally, digital strategy consultants to the music industry. Another trend that Spotify typified was the move from content as a product to content as a service. Consumers, both speakers told us, were more concerned these days with access than ownership: provided that they had access to content wherever they were, on all their devices, they weren’t concerned about actually owning it. Evidence that this attitude is already taking hold within the publishing industry was provided later in the same session by Kindle Europe’s Gordon Willoughby. The Kindle apps available across various platforms, he told us, are integral to Amazon’s ambition to fulfill their readers’ desire to read their purchases wherever and whenever they want.

Following Cornish and Brindley came the first representative from the publishing industry, Bloomsbury’s Head of Print and Digital, Evan Schnittman, who swiftly caused controversy by announcing the death of enhanced ebooks and apps. Outside of education, he stated, the idea of innovation in the reading process was a non-starter.

Schnittman’s eagerness to pronounce this nascent form dead left one grateful that he’d chosen publishing rather than midwifery as a career, and prompted furious discussion on Twitter. He found only qualified support among his fellow speakers. Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis suggested that interactivity might ultimately prove to have as small an impact on fiction as had the arrival of cheap colour printing more than a decade earlier; Sol Rosenberg of Copia, however, thought that book apps had not yet found their ideal form. Henry Volans, meanwhile, attempted a Johnsonian rebuttal (“I refute it thus”) by demonstrating some highly impressive apps from Faber, including an as-yet-unpublished edition of Eliot’s Wasteland.

Speaking after Schnittman, Kindle’s Gordon Willoughby brought matters back towards the positive by spending his entire presentation making an unsurprising, if often convincing, case for the Kindle. Buying a Kindle, he suggested, led to increased book purchasing across both ebook and print formats, with a typical Kindle owner buying on average more than three times as many books as she did before. Moreover, the availability of a book for the Kindle often led, surprisingly, to an increase in sales for the print version. The availability of Kindle versions was particularly vital when it came to backlist: publishers should make sure to digitise an author’s backlist before publication of her newest work.

Amazon’s enormous success in persuading publishers to make their work available for the Kindle was underlined by later in the day by Benedict Evans, who noted that, while the US Kindle store has more than 900,000 titles in its inventory, Apple’s iBookstore has fewer titles than can be found on the shelves of Foyles’ store on Charing Cross Road in London.

For me, though, Willoughby’s encouraging message was somewhat undermined by the fact that it relied entirely on third-party figures and the suspiciously sleight-of-hand relativism that tends to characterise Amazon press releases: one particular title, we were told, sold fifty times as many copies in six months as an ebook as it had in six years in print (producing twenty five times the amount of revenue). At times it felt as though we’d been given so much relative data that the appearance of a single concrete figure might enable us to extrapolate Amazon’s revenue for every item in its vast inventory. Frustratingly that single concrete figure, like Christmas in Narnia, never came.

The presentation that followed, from Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn, inadvertently went some way towards explaining Amazon’s reluctance to share its data. Tamblyn depicted Kobo as a company so entirely driven by data that every morning begins with a thirty minute breakfast briefing on the previous day’s sales, carefully broken down by publisher, customer, and platform – a breakfast more granular than granola. With updates every hour, and screens above teams’ heads showing real-time data for the products, platforms and formats they’re working on, it was entirely clear how highly Kobo valued its data. And, given that the company took 10 months to acquire its first million users, three months for its second, and only 45 days for its third, this approach is clearly paying dividends.

Originally written for Publishing Talk on 23 April 2011

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