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Digital Publishing: Lessons Learned

By Amanda DeMarco

Matt Hanbury (CEO, Murdoch Books), George Lossius (CEO, Publishing Technology), Richard Charkin (Executive Director, Bloomsbury), Richard Mollet (Chief Executive, PA)

What lessons can trade publishing learn from the music and film industries? Richard Mollet, chief executive of the UK Publishers Association, suggests it can learn far more from the successes of scientific and academic publishing. It’s a particularly interesting statement coming from Mollet, former Director of Public Affairs at the BPI (the representative organisation for the recorded music industry in the UK).

It’s also an opinion that was warmly supported by the other participants on Wednesday’s “Lessons Learned from Digital Publishing” panel. Richard Charkin, executive director at Bloomsbury Publishing, cites the success of Crossref, a collaboration that allows cross-publisher citation linking in online academic journals—and the failure of trade publishers to cooperate similarly to create a publisher-led retail alternative to Amazon.

Charkin, whose preference for academic over trade publishing is well-known, points out that academic publishing is now a 90%-digital business, with trade (in English) “lagging” at 15–25%. And that one of the industry’s errors, says Charkin, is that it hasn’t applied the lessons of digital publishing to print. After all, a print book is handled 24 times before it’s sold, and publishers pay royalties “based on a retail price that no one pays,” as part of a system “whose complexity would make a rocket scientist blanch.”

Matt Hanbury, CEO of Australia’s Murdoch Books (which he sold just before the fair to Allen & Unwin), says that there is an imbalance between risk and pay-out, with publishers taking chances, then losing their earnings to big players in bad deals they never should have signed. The much-promised digital revolution in publishing “has been highjacked by technology providers.”

George Lossius, CEO of Publishing Technology, says publishers have clung to big players because they give direction, even if that direction doesn’t make sense. In recent years, publishers have rushed to make iPhone apps, although 60% of smartphones are Android phones.

The panel wasn’t completely pessimistic, despite an awareness of the industry’s many missteps; Lossius predicts a doubling in readership (if not in revenue) due to increased digital reading, device use and accessibility.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 11, 2012 at 4:59 am | Permalink

    This is very interesting because it certainly goes counter to my own reading habits: I never suspected that non-fiction, including the most advanced academic and scientific work, has gone just about completely digital! Personally, I much prefer a printed book to a digital one when it comes to reading economics (I’m an economist): you’ve got the margins to scribble in, you can go back and forth, you can lay it out on a table and take notes (I know you can do that too with a Kindle, but it doesn’t feel the same, not as comfortable). Whereas fiction lends itself perfectly to digital reading: no need to scribble in the margins or go back and compare pages.

    Could it be that the winning functionality here is the ability to cross reference using the Internet? That certainly would make (and does make) for a big difference for anyone involved in research.

    One last point made here which is very interesting: publishing (especially fiction) has been “highjacked” by the technology providers and publishers haven’t been able to cooperate to provide a viable alternative to Amazon. How true. Perhaps more cooperation is needed with Amazon? Perhaps it’s not good for a publisher to get himself involved in the rivalry between the technology providers, in particular the Amazon-Apple war?

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