UK Publishers, Agents Find Solidarity in Facing Digital Transition Together

In Europe by Edward Nawotka

On the agenda for UK book community in Frankfurt this year: e-books, royalties, territoriality, piracy, agents as publishers, publishers as booksellers.

By Roger Tagholm

New opportunities created by digital, and the way it is changing the existing trade -– for example, the effect it is having on mass market paperbacks -– will form many of the discussions at Frankfurt, alongside ongoing and familiar debates over e-book pricing and royalties and concerns over piracy, an issue that has been somewhat buried beneath all the excitement over devices and apps.

Everyone is agreed that digital is opening the way for many new players, and forcing publishers to ask some fundamental questions about their purpose –- and, as ever, embracing change is the key, with many publishers welcoming the arrival of digital’s new energy and its myriad new ways of bringing content to readers.

“At last year’s fair it seemed every conversation touched on digital, and this year will obviously be no different in that regard,” said David Young, Chairman and CEO of Hachette Book Group. “I’m delighted to see the manner in which our market for books is expanding, with new entrants into marketplace. Publishing has a new lease on life with e-books, enabling fast turnaround in publishing new works, short fiction experimentation, exciting digital products, and extraordinary connectedness between authors and their readers. I believe publishers should be concentrating on excellence in both print and digital publishing, and how we can bring authors’ work to the widest audience possible, in all formats.

“If they are creating apps and enhanced e-books, they should focus on how to successfully market this digital product so that it expands readership by tapping into consumers who previously weren’t regular book buyers. We should capitalize on the wide array of new and improved tablets hitting the marketplace. And we should all be thinking how best to protect our author’s content. Piracy is a serious issue, and a costly one. It has the full attention of the AAP, as well as the Obama administration, which has put Victoria Espinel in place as its intellectual property czar.”

Agents and publishers are trapped in a long-running debate over e-book royalties which will certainly be on the agenda. “There is this contention that digital publishing is significantly cheaper than print publishing,” says Bloomsbury UK’s Executive Director Richard Charkin. “Of course there are some savings, but there are additional costs too, and the core costs of selecting, acquiring, supporting an author, editing, designing, financing, selling, promoting, collecting cash and distributing it back to the author remain much the same.”

But agent Clare Alexander at Aitken Alexander Associates in London believes publishers’ figures speak for themselves. “At the same time that publishers have announced increased sales in e-books and a migration of significant sales to digital, most of the major conglomerates have also announced strong profits.” She also thinks the question of e-book royalties has a bearing on territoriality and that this is an important issue for Frankfurt.

“Territoriality in the digital world is easier to enforce than for print books, but there are very large entities outside traditional publishing who might prefer a single English language edition. British publishers managed to sustain export markets in part by offering better royalties than their American counterparts. For e-books they are trying to enforce the same position by offering lower royalties. Amazon will be using the enhanced royalty terms that they can offer to cut traditional publishers out of the picture entirely. The question of e-book royalties and the issue of territoriality cannot easily be separated.”

Amazon is making its first steps into publishing with Amazon Publishing, and this will be its Frankfurt with Larry Kirshbaum in situ running the operation. But some publishers are less worried about its move into this area than its dominance of e-book retailing. “I think they’re welcome to become a publisher,” says Andrew Franklin, MD of UK independent Profile. “The more the better. If Amazon wants to be a publisher like every other publisher, that’s not a threat. If they’re a publisher, they’re competing with other publishers.”

Penguin, the house that invented the mass market paperback, is recognizing the effect of digitization on the format. Readers are buying the e-book, rather than waiting for the paperback and Penguin believes the format will all but disappear. It is transferring many more titles to trade paperback as a result; in essence, the mass market is becoming digital.

In the UK, Faber’s Chief Executive Stephen Page believes there are important questions to be asked over what sort of book readers want in the digital age. “What books can we build for the iPad, the new Kindle –- for the devices that technology is developing? Some books lend themselves to being enhanced e-books; others don’t. That’s a conversation that needs to be lively at Frankfurt.”

UK illustrated publisher, Carlton Books, celebrating its 20th Frankfurt, believes books as “beautiful objects” still have a future. MD Jonathan Goodman says: “I think the first panic attacks about digital are now over, although it is still a worry for fiction publishers. I don’t think it means people will stop buying books. We’re publishing books in 40 languages this year and as long we keep producing beautiful objects, then I think we have a strong future.”

Young’s UK counterpart, Tim Hely Hutchinson, who runs Hachette UK, sounded a warning, but ended optimistically, too. “This is quite a tricky, transitional moment for authors, publishers and agents, but we are on the pro-copyright side of the fence. We should be spending less time thinking about shares of the cake and more time thinking about combating piracy, combating the new ideas that some of the digital businesses come up with that essentially compete with each other at the expense of copyright holders -– and I think that at Frankfurt this year there will be an atmosphere of solidarity.”

SURVEY: What Is the Top Issue for Frankfurt 2011?

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.