E-Publishing in the UK: The Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Knowns

In Europe by Edward Nawotka

Despite the digital wave sweeping over publishing, some publishers are surprised at how seldom e-books are talked about at this year’s London Book Fair

LONDON: As former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once said (and I paraphrase) “there are known knowns, known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.”

digital media frankfurt book Fair

Digital media at the Frankfurt Book Fair. © Peter Hirth / Frankfurter Buchmesse

London has been rife with news about e-publishing, oddly, much of it coming from North Americans. On Monday, Canadian e-bookseller Kobo is launching a new local content e-bookstores in Germany and Spain in May, “with local stores for France, Italy and the Netherlands following shortly thereafter.” Amazon has sent over Philip Patrick, a recent hire and their new “senior leader, rights and licensing” (formerly of Random House’s Crown division) to buy up titles, and the e-bookseller has made waves at the Fair with the news that they are on a hiring spree to build out their publishing arm; the e-book developer Sideways is touting the launch of David Roberts’ Egypt, an enhanced e-book app featuring social media interaction…on and on.

When it comes to the UK, the most encouraging news has been that Quercus announced having reached the benchmark of having sold one million pounds worth of e-books — money likely derived almost entirely from the sale of digital editions of Stieg Larsson’s novels.

Speaking to the North Americans here in London, there is the distinct feeling that the UK publishing community has a way to go before they are fully invested in the digital domain.

“With e-book sales hitting 25% of overall revenue in the US in January and a total of 15 million iPads sold — and as many as 100 million tablets expected to sell this year — I just don’t know why the first words out of publishers mouths when they talk to me aren’t ‘what about e-books?’” said one American agent to me late yesterday.

The problem likely derives from a lack of concrete data that supports spurs enthusiasm and, more importantly, decision making at the highest levels of publishing.

As Michael Tamblyn of Kobo pointed out at the Digital Conference that preceded the Fair on Sunday, “[Selling e-books] feels like driving a submarine, and data is the periscope.”

“All we know,” added Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis on Sunday, “is that the e-book market won’t look like what it looks like today.”

That, of course, is not saying much, but it is one thing that can be said with complete confidence.  — Edward Nawotka


London Book Fair 2011

The Book App is Dead, Long Live the Book App

In a keynote presentation at the Digital Conference Evan Schnittman (Bloomsbury) declared enhanced e-books and the app dead. His gravestone powerpoint marked their short life of only two years — surely far too early for Bloomsbury “to throw in the towel” as Dan Franklin (Random House, UK) put it? Schnittman is “smug” in knowing that the app market is dead in the water. “I was smug before, now I’m even smugger.” Bold words at a digital publishing conference where as an industry it is clearly too early to feel smug about anything. Schnittmann cites one signal of this being that the e-bestsellers and the ‘p-bestsellers’ lists are so aligned. But the digital publishing industry is still in its infancy. Legacy publishers are still responsible for the vast majority of books being published, but the landscape is rapidly changing.

We now know that there is a market for e-books — Amazon’s Gordon Willoughby points to US book sales of the last quarter of 2010, where for the first time their Kindle book sales outsold paperback sales. Then there’s the news that Quercus UK and Knopf are reporting e-book sales in their millions. This is encouraging but it would be a dangerous strategy for publishers to put all their eggs into the e-book basket. Sol Rosenberg (Copia) was right to point out that simply no-one is in a position to rest on their laurels, with even the major players Apple, Amazon and Google consistently trying to anticipate not where the market is, but where the market will be. Jane Tappuni from Publishing Technology also reminded us that while we think there are knowns, really everything can change, citing how in the early days of the digitization of the music industry Sony was perceived as being the clear front-runner, long before iTunes came along and changed the entire music industry landscape.

I do hope Schnittman stuck around until the end of the conference to catch bright young things of the UK publishing industry — Dan Franklin (Random House) and Henry Volans (Faber). Both were fast in refuting Schnittman’s claims that the app was dead. Franklin made the valid point (using football’s off-side rule as a metaphor) that perhaps the publishing industry in currently creating apps that might be “too far ahead of our reader” but continued in saying that “it was the responsibility of publishers to be bold and daring in this environment.” Volans echoed this in saying that publishers need to create book apps that break out of the books category, something Faber has already done with their Touch Press co-publication of the Solar System app — an app which went on to become the third highest grossing app in the US and was even outselling Angry Birds in the UK. Volans says “apps are a phenomenon of our age and they’re here to stay.”  If publishers don’t want to be a part of this book world then there are plenty of developers happy to move in — so the question is perhaps not whether apps are dead or not, but whether publishers want a share of this market.  — Sophie Rochester

TELL US:What is Your News from the London Book Fair?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.