London Book Fair Digital Conference Digest: “Take Risks, Fail, Learn and Try Again”

In English Language by Liz Bury

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By Liz Bury

The pre-show digital day at London Book Fair kicked off in good spirits on Sunday but regrettably, with numbers depleted due to the volcano eruption in Iceland.

Slated speakers Susan Danziger from America’s DailyLit and Michael Tamblyn from Canada’s e-book store Kobo were absent, and about 20% of the seats at the sell-out conference were empty. The cancellation of so many international publishers at this year’s fair because of flight restrictions has been a big disappointment. However, the conference still sparked lively debate. Here’s a digest of the day’s major themes.

What Is a Publisher?

Speakers returned over and over again to the question of what is the publisher’s role in the digital market. Kate Wilson, founder of start-up children’s book publisher and app developer Nosy Crow, put it like this: “We have to be able to offer something and to know what it is that we do in the space between the author and the reader. Otherwise, we don’t deserve to be there. Authors are the innovators; we have to work out how we can be useful to them and to different sorts of creatives.”

Rebecca Smart, from niche military history publisher Osprey, put it another way: “Redefine what you are. Make yourself matter to your readers. Focus on what you do and put an entrepreneurial heart into in.”

Know Your Customer

Another recurring theme was getting closer to consumers through analytics. Peter Collingridge, of the award-winning e-book app developer Enhanced Editions, shared a couple of choice insights from his data. Readers of musician Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro app spent on average one hour reading between the hours of 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. By comparison, readers of Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father app spent on average two hours reading between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. lunchtime. “Make of that what you will…”

Agent Talk

Territorial rights were the “elephant in the room,” according to Charkin. That was perhaps unsurprising since there were very few agents in the room. Wilson from Nosy Crow remarked: “Agents need to be much more engaged. It’s shocking there are no more than six are here.”

One agent who was there, Ed Victor, asked publishers to explain why “if there are no warehousing costs, no manufacturing costs and no distribution costs, we had to drag you kicking and screaming to a lousy 25% of net receipts?”

Collingridge suggested that e-book royalties might turn out to be different for frontlist and backlist. “The development cost for a new app needs to be amortised over time, whereas storing backlist might be less costly,” he explained. Enhanced Editions is “working to expose the cost of developing an e-book app and to share that with publishers,” he said.

Victor also picked up remarks by Bloomsbury’s digital director Stephanie Duncan that e-books were just another format, and asked if that’s so, “Why pay on net receipts?” To which Duncan replied: “Why not flip it around and pay a percentage of net receipts all the way?’ Said Ed, simply: “No.”

Academic and STM Publishers May Have the Answers

George Lossius, CEO of service provider Publishing Technology, pointed to academic and STM publishers as examples to follow. “They allow experimentation and are accepting of failure; in academic publishing, it’s normal. They make a profit. They don’t give things away. They value their product, and sell it and relate to their customers in a fluid way.”

Price Higher, Make Profits

As topics for debate, neither pricing nor profitability were tackled head on. Off mic, subscriptions were put forward as an attractive model, especially if the cost can be added to a mobile phone bill. In general, the attitude seemed to favor raising, rather than lowering prices.

Find Good People, Encourage Collaboration

“Whose P&L is it anyway?” is one way to characterize the tensions felt within publishing houses over digital projects. John Duhigg from Dorling Kindersley said he’d experienced “suspicion” between his teams in India and the UK, made up of people with different skills, but believes, “you have to find a way to pull those people together.”

Meanwhile Wilson, managing a start-up team, says, “find people who understand your values and know code.”

Experiment and Fail

If there was an overall take away, if you will, it could be summarized thusly as: “take risks, fail, learn and try again.”

WATCH: A podcast interview with the conference chairs Richard Charkin David Roth-Ey and George Walkley

DISCUSS: Did you hear anything new at LBF’s digital conference?

About the Author

Liz Bury

Liz Bury is a full-time journalist who lives in London.