Publishing within a particle accelerator: the ePublishing Innovation Forum 2011

dark clouds

Though at the time this didn’t seem one of the more interesting conferences, I attended, in retrospect it raises a couple of interesting points. The suggestion that ebooks might hit 50% of total sales by 2016 now looks perhaps a little unlikely (though the same suggestion had been made by Victoria Barnsley at Frankfurt the previous year). Tim Cooper’s tipping point, when print becomes unviable, seems unlikely to come any time soon, if at all.

Julian Sambles’s demonstration of a Telegraph iPad app that proved too innovative for its audience also looks, in retrospect, to have been something of a warning for the enhanced ebook, already written off by Evan Schnittmann at the London Book Fair the previous month.

Last week’s ePublishing Innovation Forum may have been aimed at the “information industry”, but the issues addressed often applied across the entire publishing sector. Speakers were united in their acknowledgement that this is a volatile time for our industry: Macmillan’s Timo Hannay likened the effect of technology on publishing to the CERN particle accelerator: familiar building blocks were colliding at high speed to create new forms (some of whom, he might have added, might prove equally short-lived).

One key theme, as at the London Book Fair Digital Conference, was the increasing importance of mobile: though tablets were predicted to outsell netbooks by the end of the year (according to figures from Deloitte), sales of both would continue to be dwarfed by smartphones. With smartphone users spending an average of 5 hours per day on their devices, publishers were more than ever expected to ensure their content was both available and optimised for mobile.

The importance of knowing your audience was emphasised repeatedly. The Telegraph’s Julian Sambles began his session with a video showcase for an iPad app that made impressive use of multimedia and the device’s connectivity. As the film ended, however, he revealed that the app had never been developed. The Telegraph’s initial iPad app – built primarily, Sambles told us, as “something we could learn from”, a means of capturing user data – had revealed that their readers didn’t want such functionality. Consequently, the Telegraph app contains only a selection of the content from the paper, and – just like the print edition – is updated only once each day: according to Sambles, readers like the fact that editors choose the content for them, and that it is finite; it has what Audra Martin of the Economist was later to describe as “finishability”.

Listening to Sambles, I couldn’t help feeling that the organisers had missed a trick by not putting alongside him a representative from the Guardian, whose iPhone app differs from the iPad version of the Telegraph in almost every detail, updating frequently, and pulling content not only from that day’s paper but also the website and the paper’s archives. It would have been instructive to have explored how audience research had occasioned both these very different approaches since, as Martin noted in her own presentation, understanding customer behaviour is the key to everything from developing a successful product, to getting advertisers, and finding the right price point.

Pricing was – inevitably – another recurring theme. With ebook prices under downward pressure from authors self-publishing at 99c, retailers keen to offset the cost to buyers of their electronic devices, and readers unaware that – within the UK at least – any savings on manufacturing costs are more than outweighed by the imposition of VAT at 20% on digital formats, publishers who successfully maintain print prices for digital products are rare. Though there were examples of such publishers among the speakers (the Economist, Martin told us, charged similarly for both print and online subscriptions), useful lessons were in shorter supply: Harlequin’s Tim Cooper, dubbed “digital publishing’s most inspiring figure” at this year’s FutureBook awards, was encouragingly bullish yet disappointingly unedifying in his statement that “Harlequin ebooks sell for the same price as print, and it seems to work for us.”

The Q&A session with Cooper that closed proceedings was nonetheless one of the conference highpoints. He began by predicting that ebook sales would reach a tipping point of 50% within the next five years, hitting 80% very shortly after, at which point some “harsh decisions” would have to be taken about the economic viability of print. Harlequin’s success in digital, he added, had been occasioned by the fact that they’d not dipped their toes in the digital water but had instead taken the plunge of digitising their entire frontlist; by the end of this year, he said, their complete backlist will have followed suit. Such responsiveness to change was vital, Cooper said: successful publishers could no longer rely on implementing five year plans; instead, plans and targets should be updated several times a year. This conference will have had several of its attendees hastily updating theirs.

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