Radical Changes Needed to Put UK E-book Strategy on Track

In Digital by Liz Bury

By Liz Bury

Publishers Association UK

It was a curious experience listening to speakers at the recent e-books industry strategy event in London, run by the digital directors group of the UK Publishers Association.

A lot of rational ideas about how to combat piracy were being talked about, like how improving access to content and enhancing the quality of experience offered to e-book buyers will help reduce the incidence of piracy. Buzzwords were bandied about: Discussions focused on the way to reduce “consumer friction” (ie frustration, a potential cause of piracy) is by improving “interoperability” and “access,” perhaps to the “cloud.” And it was generally agreed that piracy can be dampened down by putting consumers’ needs at the center of the emerging e-books market.

But the undercurrent to these conversations, which were all about balancing access to content against protecting the value of rights holders’ assets, was altogether more radical, and riveting.

The first hint came from author Tom Reynolds, whose blog-turned-book, Blood Sweat and Tea, about his trials as a British ambulance worker, was issued simultaneously in 2006 as a paperback and as a free e-book under a Creative Commons license, by his publisher The Friday Project. The sequel, More Blood, More Sweat + Another Cup of Tea, is out now from HarperCollins, with a Creative Commons version promised soon.

Reynolds observed that in the e-book market, “you are selling a service as much as, or even more than, content.” To which David Roth-Ey, HarperCollins digital director, replied: “I don’t disagree.” A small comment, maybe, but a service-driven business sounds very different to a traditional publishing house and implies the need to seriously rethink of how the publishing house interacts with customers. The PA’s digital directors group knows this and, as the event wore on, a vision of a future that reflects a radical re-shaping of the traditional books sector was gradually emerging.

By the time the concluding session began, the digital directors’ sense of urgency was leaking out. “Rapid change in the US has brought this [the need for transformational change] up the agenda. New products and business models we can do, but, also, the industry infrastructure needs to change,” Random House’s Fionnuala Duggan said.

Roth-Ey and Hachette’s George Walkley agreed that engaging core staff in the change was vital. “As well as an organizational and process change it’s also a cultural change. We have to think differently,” Walkley said. Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd added: “We need to transform the core as opposed to innovating at the edges.”

Echoing earlier sessions and responding to the demand that publishers be more service-oriented, Lloyd highlighted the “value of consumer insight. We need to look forward and not in the rear view mirror.” Marek Vaygelt of market research specialist YouGov, had earlier noted that publishers’ traditional approach to audience interaction consisted of, “put a book out, and if it sells, print some more”.

Asked what traditional booksellers could do to advance their position in this new market, Roth-Ey gamely suggested that a readiness to accept publishers’ data feeds and to use them effectively on retail websites might help. But Mark Majurey of Taylor & Francis dispensed with any such padding. “Retail is in a very, very difficult situation,” he said.

Discussions about DRM versus open standards, pricing models, and access to the cloud may be important right now. But the subtext to the discussions at this event suggested that some people, at least, anticipate further and more radical change. As Roth-Ey put it: “We need to get out of the bubble of thinking about the book.”

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About the Author

Liz Bury

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Liz Bury has been a writer and editor for 20 years, covering books, design and business risk. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, Building Design and The Bookseller, among other publications. She can be found tweeting rarely @lizziebbrown and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/liz-bury-88356a16.