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8 Lessons from the UK’s World E-Reading Congress

Some things bear repeating, and repeating and repeating…

By Roger Tagholm

LONDON: Dedicated e-readers could die out within five years, killed off by the rise of smartphones at the lower end of the market, and by tablets at the top. That’s the view of Benedict Evans, digital media guru at London-based consultancy Enders Analysis and Chair of the final day of the World e-Reading Congress which concluded in the city Wednesday (read our coverage of the first day’s session).  “At the moment, readers have a window driven by price because tablets are so expensive. But I think many more people will read on phones in the future. The Kindle is dreadful -– it’s like reading a fax, and you have so little on the screen…”

Well, it’s a view. Those delegates who traveled by Underground to the Congress may have disagreed. It’s hard not to notice the number of people using Kindles on the Tube in London now -– and so frustrating that it’s not possible to see what they are reading.

Despite its grand-sounding name, the first World e-Reading Congress, which took place over two long days in a London hotel, did not quite live up to expectation. A “congress” suggested something of the stature and scale of the Google I/O in San Francisco, which also finished Wednesday. While some big name international speakers were booked, such as Terry McDonell, Editor of Sports Illustrated and Neil McIintosh, Editor of WSJ.com Europe, as well top executives from UK publishers HarperCollins, Random House, Bloomsbury and Macmillan, the event seemed to lack something to bind it all together.

This may be because it fell between two stools.  While it could be argued that everyone there was in the content business, there was no sense of one industry being represented which meant that much of the socializing and networking that takes place at book industry conferences didn’t happen. Publishers were outnumbered by media organizations and digital platform builders, and not able to do that catching up that is such a part of these events.

Not only that, there was also a question about numbers overall. When the two-day conference began on Tuesday, there were perhaps 70 or 80 delegates. By the graveyard shift on Wednesday afternoon, bravely taken by advertising execs from Ogilvy and AKQA Mobile, the audience had dwindled to around 15. Organizers Terrapinn had boldly tried to pack too much into the two days and attention –- and attendance –- flagged. Yet doubtless they are taking justifiable satisfaction from the fact that the all-important sponsors, among them WoodWing, developer of digital magazine tools, and Siemens, were happy, with some deals signed there and then.

So what were some of the lessons publishers could take away with them? Here are a few impressions, garnered from two days of speakers and panel discussions:

  1. Have your digital team in house. Sports Illustrated made this shift for their digital edition, and Penguin does it too. Nathan Hull, Penguin’s Digital Publisher who spoke about the publisher’s hugely successful, multiple format My Fry project for Stephen Fry, said: “We need to step outside the confines of traditional publishing. We have our own team of digital developers who have wonderful titles like “Information Architect.”
  2. Get your rights for apps sorted at the start. Faber’s Head of Digital Publishing, Henry Volans, stressed this. “It’s so important. When we did the contract for the QI app [to accompany the book based on the popular BBC TV comedy quiz show, fronted by the ubiquitous Fry again], the agreement with the agent was that if we didn’t exploit the rights by a certain period of time, they would revert.”
  3. Draw social networking facilities into your website. You don’t have to build them -– as we all know, they already exist. Bloomsbury’s Digital Media Director Stephanie Duncan emphasized this point, while presenting the publisher’s Public Library Online initiative.
  4. Listen to and use your customers. Engage with them -– make it easy for them to start a conversation.
  5. Metadata is vital. Ronald Schild, CEO of MVB Marketing, the German e-book distributor, believes this could be as important in the digital arena as booksellers are in the physical.
  6. The market is changing all the time. Don’t go exclusively with any one system. Not surprisingly, Google’s Director of Print Content Partnerships, Europe, Santiago de la Mora, who had heard Apple mentioned more times than perhaps he wished, said: “As a publisher, you want to make sure you have as wide a reach as possible.”
  7. Books and publishing are moving into a world dominated by other people. This was ably demonstrated by Evans when he put up a photograph of diners in a marquee toasting President Obama’s election. These were leaders of Fortune 500 companies. “Can you name them?” he asked. The point he was making was that it was the companies these people led that could be entering the book arena “and using your products in completely different ways that we do not know about yet”.
  8. Try to think of pirates not as parasites but potential customers. This was suggested by Palgrave Macmillan’s Digital Director Alison Jones. “You could think of it as a free form of marketing.” Having watched mistakes made by the music industry, she favored a lighter approach, targeting systematic infringement, rather than individuals, and making DRM “as light as possible”.

Despite all the excitement about apps, and the undeniable wizardry of those demonstrated, Evans pointed that most books are still only text and questioned how far this side of the business can go. Hull also noted the expense of making apps, and said that Penguin only had six scheduled for this year.

Leaving the hotel, one wondered how many delegates passed a branch of WHSmith and noted the mini publishing boom apps have caused. The iPad may be a digital turning point -– the fabled tipping point even -– but there are now half a dozen print magazines being sold to guide people through this digital wonderland.  Which is a delicious irony.

DISCUSS: What Are Your Digital Priorities for the Remainder of 2011?

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