London Book Fair: Mind the Digital Gap

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In the quiet before London Book Fair's Publishing for Digital Minds opens Monday at London's QEII Centre: The dilemma of how "digital minds" must really work. | Photo: Porter Anderson

In the quiet before London Book Fair’s Publishing for Digital Minds opens Monday at London’s QEII Centre: The dilemma of how “digital minds” must really work. | Photo: Porter Anderson

Table of Contents

  1. Live #EtherIssue Chat Wednesday from London Book Fair
  2. London Book Fair: Mind the Digital Gap
  3. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 4 p.m. London Book Fair Time
  4. Last Week’s Topic: Digital vs. Print, the Skirmish

Live #EtherIssue Chat Wednesday from London Book Fair

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 4 p.m. BST in London—on Wednesday. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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London Book Fair: Mind the Digital Gap

By Porter Anderson

You’ve got to think really hard about what you’re actually selling…in a different way.

Dan Kieran, one of the co-founders of the crowdfunding publisher Unbound, was speaking Monday in a panel discussion on democratisation.

Publishing for Digital Minds, the conference that Orna O’Brian programs for Reed Exhibitions each year at the start of London Book Fair’s week of activity, wasn’t even through its second hour.

And, in fact, we’d heard variations on this theme.

Novelist and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz’s keynote was both an homage to the beauty and power of print and a bit of wondering aloud whether publishers today understand that they can’t simply replicate in digital formats what they do in print.

“It seems publishers aren’t grabbing the nettle,” Horowitz said, “because they’re too afraid of getting stung…Anything is possible, but publishers have got to imagine more expansive ways of communicating information.”

Bill Thompson of BCC Archives would arrive with another keynote in less than an hour with a center-of-the-universe interpretation of the problem.

“The simulacrum” of a page is not the best an #ebook can do, Thompson said. “Time we engaged fully in the technology.”

As Andrew Albanese at Publishers Weekly wrote up his comments, in London Book Fair 2014: Publishers Urged to Look Beyond the Book:

This is not a new game. We’ve had 70 years of digital, 40 years of e-books, 30 years of the Internet, 25 years of the web, 10 years of Facebook, and the iPhone is 7 years old. This is not new technology. We should be horrified at how slow we are to adapt to something that has been changing the world for seven decades.

Easily the strongest session of the day, the Question Time panelists wrestle with issues at Publishing for Digital Minds | Photo: Alastair Horne

Easily the strongest session of the day, the Question Time panelists wrestle with issues at Publishing for Digital Minds | Photo: Alastair Horne

At the other end of the day, it was Sam Burridge of Palgrave Macmillan whose commentary with others in the day’s best moment, the Question Time sequence, were full of frank perspective.

“Publishers were too internal for too long,” she said. “We thought we were very special.” Burridge said she thinks this is changing. I’ve felt very frustrated, and I wouldn’t have stayed in publishing if it hadn’t started innovating…It’s no use innovating unless you really want it. Publishers need to get much better at understanding customers. Everyone talks about needing to change…but one of the things crucial to us is to work with different partners.”

Throughout the day–parts of which I’ll play out in writings to come when deadlines aren’t so tight–there might have been a tacit understanding in the Fleming Room sessions that the point being understood now is that understanding, itself, may not always have been readily at hand in the past.

And if it’s easy to suggest that publishers haven’t always been clear that simply making digital versions of what they do wasn’t going to get them through the disruption, authors, too, have had many stages of knowledge to encounter, as well.

Michael Tamblyn, newly elevated to president at Kobo, pointed out that in his company’s ethos, authors are the most enduring of all brands.

But “authors, whether they know it or don’t know it, have changed,” Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller said, referring to the fact that the position of the central, creative player in publishing is rapidly evolving with new depths of impact.

In response to a question from the floor about branding and its validity, especially as it pertains to author-branding, Geller added, “I think ‘brand’ is probably the word I most hate in publishing…probably a shorthand for genres.”

What business may be at hand in publishing, he said, is perhaps too subtle an order for the usual uses of the commercial world’s term, brand: “We’re in the business of trying to get very individual experiences replicated on a massive scale.”

Kicking with the right, Hugh Howey (left), Orna Ross, and Jon Fine on the self-publishing and hybrid panel at #DigiConf14 | Photo: Joanna Penn

Kicking with the right, Hugh Howey (left), Orna Ross, and Jon Fine on the self-publishing and hybrid panel at #DigiConf14 | Photo: Joanna Penn

And that’s a concept that author Hugh Howey had sounded earlier in the day in a very effective panel on self-publishing and hybrid considerations with Amazon’s Jon Fine and the Independent Authors Alliance’s (“ALLi”) Orna Ross.

“We’re delivering stories,” Howey told the audience. “Don’t get hung up on the new thing” — whether it’s serial work or singles or audiobooks, etc. “We deliver stories to people who want to hear them.”

Keeping that central mission in mind can only help move the overall industry past what has probably been an understandable but hobbling tendency to think it understood what “change” meant.

The Digital Minds conference this year was always agreeable. Actual elements of contention, sharp points of view, were hard to find, amid such a gracious and friendly tone.

Anna Rafferty’s able work as onstage chair was warm and personable, her onstage interview with Martha Lane Fox (deep in the trenches of digital-skills work) was quick, pleasant, if not immediately applicable to the experience of publishing today, surely a nearby range of issues in the marketplace of readers.

One flatly handy moment turned up during a subscription-models panel moderated by Rebecca Smart. We learned from Scribd’s Andrew Weinstein that the way to pronounce the company’s name is “scribbed, one syllable. You’ll hear any number of incorrect guesses.

And, in fact, for all the concerns you can hear in publishing about Scribd’s and Oyster’s arrival with worries of subscription services cannibalizing sales on the buffet-altar of all-you-can-read, it was interesting to note that the line of folks waiting to talk with Weinstein after his appearance  was one complete coffee break long. Lots of folks seemed interested in touching base with the subscription issue.

In the final analysis, the most interesting moment may have come in the form of a new announcement from the biggest of the majors.

Dan Franklin of Penguin Random House announced the arrival in late beta of a site called My Independent Bookshop.

Now, that’s a mouthful, as far as names for sites go, yes. Even the Twitter handle is MyIndieBookshop, not a lot shorter. But let’s be sure to note that in an industry burdened with crazily whimsical names that mean nothing among start-ups, this one does, at least, carry some hint about what it is.

The concept is one of personal recommendation, an interactive site that allows users to array their preferred reading for others in their own “bookshop,” a metaphorical variant on Goodreads’ virtual bookshelf.

And here, at the very least, is one of several recent moves in publishing that seem to root themselves, or try to, in digital needs and response.

As The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell reports, in PRH Launches My Independent Bookshop, that the sales component of the new initiative is tied, in fact, to actual independent stores. She writes:

Readers can buy the titles they see on My Independent Bookshop profiles through Hive, the e-commerce arm of Gardners wholesalers, which is connected to 350 independent bookshops in the UK. Users can choose their favourite real-world independent bookshop to connect with when they register and bookshops will receive a minimum of 5% commission on book orders and 8% on e-books orders.

And while more will come out of the day’s efforts in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center’s agreeable setting and the conference’s spirit of camaraderie, one of the more interesting captures of the digital arc at the moment in publishing may have come from Jon Fine, an able representative of Amazon whom I, for one, wish had been included in the Question Time lineup of so many fine digital minds.

In his earlier set-to with Howey and ALLi’s Ross, Fine said something he has been driving home at writers’ conferences for quite some time, in particular. He said, “Now that we have the opportunity to tell a story” with all the capacity that digital provides us, “we have the responsibility to make it good.”

Normally, Fine is saying this as a cautionary note to authors who may find it so easy to self-publish that they rush their work out before it’s ready. But in the context of the day–which ended in part with some discussion of the meaning of Amazon’s mighty presence on the publishing landscape–the concept being placed on the table by the affable, discerning Fine is an important one.

Publishing can no longer hope to come out the other end of the digital chute by simply creating more digital “versions” of print things. The time has arrived when what’s really being called for is digital origination, leveraging the power of digital to move this industry’s grasp of Howey’s story and Geller’s “individual experiences” down the road toward the new context imagined by the conference’s title.

May next year find us all more digital in our minds. It’s the right direction.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 4 p.m. London Book Fair Time

Please give these ideas some thoughts and join us Wednesday for our live conversation, always lively.

  • For starters, let’s ask each other how successful publishers have been to date in understanding that true “digital minds” don’t stop with the kind of replication of a print book that might be possible with ebooks?
  • Is the industry getting closer to sorting out what’s really required?
  • If so, who’s ahead? Do authors get this better than publishers? Really? If so, how and why?
  • Have a look at the new My Independent Bookstore site. Does it measure up to something truly in touch with the digital transformation of reading? Or is its basis in that “bookstore” concept another way of hanging back, trying to replicate online what exists in the “old world?”

We’d love your input. Hash it #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: Digital vs. Print, the Skirmish

1 April 2014 iStock_000011334536Small photog KikkerDirk texted story imageWhat started as a quick look at the loudly decried comments of the UK’s bookstore chain founder Tim Waterstone about ebooks going into a “decline” in the States led to several days of industry conversation, actually. By the time our lead piece, As London Book Fair Looms: Debates Natural and Not, had run, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) was weighing in with the final two months of StatShot figures for 2013, showing that, in fact, ebooks had lost only a couple of points’ share in the post-Fifty Shades market, and overall book sales had held their own, too.

However limited they are (even 1,200 publishers don’t tell us what Amazon, Apple, and B&N know about sales), these were welcome numbers that quickly seemed to help show that Waterstone was probably was less than accurate in his assessment of the American “decline” of digital reading.

There’s more now in That Tug Of War Over Your Book Fetish at Thought Catalog, if you’d like to read more deeply on this topic.

And certainly, our live-convo participants on the #EtherIssue hashtag held up their end on the topic. A quick look at what was said:

As he frequently does, author and instructor James Scott Bell got us off to a wry start.

Be sure to consider joining us at 4 p.m. BST in London Wednesday — 11 a.m. ET — for our next #EtherIssue, this week from the floor of London Book Fair.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 33-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether articles are read at Thought Catalog and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London with a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.