Whither Book Publishers? TOC Frankfurt on Tech and Readers

In Feature Articles by Hannah Johnson

By Hannah Johnson

(This article also appeared in our Frankfurt Edition on October 14)

TOC FrankfurtDescribing the philosophy behind the launch of the Stanza iPhone reader, Neelan Choksi, COO of Lexcycle (the company behind Stanza), set the tone of the TOC Frankfurt Conference on Tuesday in his keynote speech, saying, “We focused on the readers because that’s all we knew.”

Stanza is a tech startup hardly a year old and founded by “enterprise Java geeks who know a lot about technology and not a lot about the publishing industry.” Despite the founders’ inexperience in book publishing, Stanza has not felt the effects of the economic downturn in the US the way publishers have.

Instead, Stanza is has become one of the dominant providers of iPhone e-books and was bought by Amazon in April of this year.

Stanza is a tech startup hardly a year old and founded by “enterprise Java geeks who know a lot about technology and not a lot about the publishing industry.” Despite the founders’ inexperience in book publishing, Stanza has not felt the effects of the economic downturn in the US the way publishers have. Instead, Stanza is has become one of the dominant providers of iPhone e-books and was bought by Amazon in April of this year.

The Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC), which is organized by O’Reilly Media in New York City, partnered with the Frankfurt Book Fair this year to organize a one-day conference on digital trends and the future of publishing. Speakers come from both publishing and technology companies to lend their expertise and predictions on how publishing can succeed in an increasingly digital landscape, influenced by technological innovation, social media, and changing consumer expectations.

Sara Lloyd of Pan MacMillan UK, also a keynote speaker, named Amazon, Google and Apple as the “big three” companies influencing digital changes in publishing right now, and pointed out that 2 out of the 3 are not actually book companies. However, they all focus heavily on “consumer experience” as a driving component of their business strategies.

Lloyd said it is “way past time that we as publishers caught up with that.”

More technology companies are entering the publishing industry and self-publishing is becoming a more mainstream option. According to Lloyd, these changes challenge a publisher’s role as arbiter, filter and “custodian of copyright.” So how can publishers hold on to this role? Lloyd advised the audience to add value to books by creating entire consumer experiences rather than simply shipping products.

Choksi also addressed the role of publishers, saying, “don’t let this become a blockbuster industry” because authors will turn to self-publishing and other methods of reaching readers. As an example, he added that singer “Prince started his own record label because he could make more money that way.”

Piracy and DRM also held center stage among presenters. Cory Doctorow, famous for his anti-DRM stance, told the audience that has never stopped piracy. Licensing content rather than selling it, he asserted, disrupts the “emotional bond of owning a book,” something publishers can and should provide. “We were readers before” we entered the business, he said, and we should not forget that.

Brian O’Leary of Magellan Media presented the results of ongoing research to test the impact of piracy on book sales. Using frontlist e-book titles from O’Reilly Media sold without DRM, the project tracked available pirated editions online. Around 19 weeks after the publication date of a book, pirated versions began to appear on peer-to-peer websites. This was then followed by an increase in book sales at around 21 weeks. While O’Leary stressed that the two events don’t necessarily indicate causality, they are certainly related.

So what does this mean for publishers? What do these changes tell us? Most sessions ended with the advice that book publishers should experiment with new digital initiatives and business models; they should engage their readers online; and they should look beyond the supply chain models.

Speaker Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks, who spoke about running small startup companies, along with Choksi, both emphasized that partnering with other businesses and experts was a big part of their success. Perhaps publishers should actually be looking outside their own industry for inspiration.

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the Publisher of Publishing Perspectives. Before joining PP in 2009, she worked as Project Manager at the German Book Office New York.