Rights Directors Aim To Hit a “Moving Target”

In Feature Articles by Andrew Wilkins

By Andrew Wilkins

While hardcore digitizers were immersed in the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference at the Radisson Hotel, back at the fair grounds rights managers were congregating to discuss the practicalities of making money from digital content.

This year’s International Rights Directors Meeting—the 23rd—was appropriately themed, “Hitting a Moving Target,” and captured the sheer speed of change that has occurred in the digital space in recent years.

Chairperson Evan Schnittman (Oxford University Press USA) likened the digital space to an “ever-expanding universe,” pointing out that there was no single way of operating in this new marketplace, but rather a multitude of ways. And the digital marketplace was no longer about the future: “We are living it—it’s here,” he said.

David Roth-Ey, Director of Digital Business Development at HarperCollins Publishers in the UK, provided a historical summary of the way the digital market place has grown since 2000, when Stephen King launched his online novel, Riding the Bullet. The digital future had arrived and, if publishers were to thrive, they needed to “evaluate their businesses strategically and test various business models.” The main danger, he said, was waiting too long to get into the digital marketplace: “You don’t need to be first, but be a fast follower.”

Duncan Campbell of Wiley Blackwell UK provided a survey of a number of business models used by the STM publisher, observing “there’s a massive amount of opportunity out therefore licensing content.” He agreed with David Roth-Ey that publishers needed the ‘maximum flexibility’ in the rights they were granted to take advantage of the ever-changing digital landscape.

With last week’s announcement of Amazon’s push to sell to the Kindle ereader to 100 countries still fresh, Madeleine McIntosh of Amazon Europe spoke of the evolution of the Kindle with its goal of having “every book ever printed in any language, all available to buy in 60 seconds.” There were now 350,000 ebooks now available on the Kindle in the US, of which about 200,000 will be available around the world from 19 October (the exact number varying from country to country).

Tom Turvey of Google argued for a broader, non-proprietary approach: “If the digital book experience is going to be big, it has to be a global experience—not limited to one retailer.” There were 1.8 billion users of the internet, he said, but only somewhere between one and three million people currently using e-readers. Turvey described Google’s plans to launch a “buy anywhere, read anywhere” extension to its Google Book Preview service in 2010. This will enable users of Google Book Search to buy a digital version of a book in their web browser directly from Google or from participating booksellers.

Further presentations on digital games, the most suitable content for mobile phones (especially the epoch-making iPhone) and digital publishing in China filled out a packed and stimulating afternoon.

In a world where disintermediation—defined by Duncan Campbell as “anything where user behaviour outstrips your business model”—was rife, perhaps Roth-Ey said it best when he said that publishers needed to ensure they were adding significant value in the supply chain to stay in the game:

‘Technology threatens our business but also gives us new tools to develop it,’ he summarized.

About the Author

Andrew Wilkins

Andrew Wilkins is the director of Wilkins Farago, an independent, Melbourne-based book publisher. Until 2008, he was publisher of Australia's book industry magazine, Bookseller+Publisher. He travels regularly throughout the Asia-Pacific region.