Digital Sprezzatura: EDITECH Offers Italians Strategies, Advice on E-publishing

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European publishers may be lagging behind in e-publishing, but the delay is giving publishers time to glean wisdom from their colleagues in the US, UK and Japan and learn from their mistakes.

By Sophie Rochester

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MILAN: The gulf between European publishers who have been slow to adapt to digital publishing and those well-entrenched could not have been better illustrated than at a dinner the night before the 4th EDITECH International Conference organized by the Italian Publishers Association (Associazione Italiana Editori) in Milan earlier this week, where a well-dressed Italian publisher sat down at the table and announced with pride, “We have not a single e-book at our company!” The Japanese publisher Yasuko Matsui of PAPYLESS responded, “We publish e-books only. So far we have 160,000 e-books.” On hearing this, the Italian asked her to trace out the numbers out on the table just to ensure he had heard correctly.

Editech, which attracted some 250 Italian publishers, opened the next day with some eye-watering slides on the changing world of books, e-books and devices from Nielsen UK’s Commercial Director, Ann Betts. Some of the graphs made grim reading –- a sharp decline in books sales in the US and UK. The massive drop in print sales in the US quantified as 22 million fewer print books sold in recent weeks, a decline which Betts says is accelerating. Some European countries appear to be following this trend –- including Italy, Denmark and Ireland -– but there is a “slightly delayed” effect in Europe.

Betts suggested that some of this decline is due to the economic downturn and an overriding lack of global consumer confidence. Although previously book sales were not thought to have been affected by the economy their research demonstrated that books sales are affected by consumer confidence, with over a third of UK consumers saying they had “no spare cash.”

But the other explanation is that e-book sales are, indeed, in rapid growth: the Nielsen data also demonstrated to European publishers how this sharp decline is being mirrored by rapid growth in the e-books sales market, with e-book sales accounting for 17% of the US market and almost 6% of the UK at the end of 2010 (numbers that have surely risen by then).

Virginie Clayssen from the French Publisher Editis, concurred, say that European publishers seem “slower,” but she added “It’s not because European are dinosaurs, luddites, or reluctant to change or to technology. It’s just because it takes time to build the digital, sustainable ecosystem we want to live in.”

European digital marketing may lag behind the US and Japan, but this could be seen as an advantage. Stephen Page, CEO of UK Publisher Faber & Faber pointed out that being able to see what is happening in the US, and to what is happening in other industries, should in fact help European publishers to prepare themselves for the inevitable switchover.

So what can Italian publishers do to prepare themselves? Faber’s evolutionary history in digital is an instructive one -– as an 80-year-old publisher, they wouldn’t be the obvious choice to be one of the UK’s most forward thinking digital publishers. Page said that publishers need to radically rethink their business models: they need to rethink structural roles and organizational roles, rethink the text creation workflow, think about the long tail and get digitizing as much as possible, be clear about metadata (the Faber Metadata meeting is apparently Page’s new favorite meeting), put much greater resource into legal, ensure that contracts are airtight and become “experts” in pricing issues.

Faber & Faber has also expanded the scope of its business by opening a creative writing school and offering services to other publishers. It has even stopped calling itself “a publisher” and now describes itself as “a publishing house bringing services to readers, writers and others.”

Page explained that when Kindle US first arrived in the UK it had almost no impact at all on sales. It was only once Kindle UK (and arguably once Kindle 3 came out) that UK publishers started to notice significant e-book sales.

Meanwhile, Italians are still waiting for Kindle. At the Bologna Book Fair in March 2011 the launch of an Italian Kindle was apparently “imminent” but there is still no sign of it, although the Italian team is in place and appears to be talking to some Italian publishers already. Kindle will have some competition here as Italy has several online retailers with a linked e-reader, such as the “leggo” from (which retails at 219 euros) and several Android powered devices and distributors.

Teri Tobias, a US literary agent, also had advice for Italian publishers. “Publishers should hire digital publishing content experts,” and said these experts need to be fully integrated into the company. Tobias feels that promoting from within isn’t enough. “It just halts progress,” she said. “If traditional publishers do not innovate, another company will.”

Cristina Mussinelli, who helped to organize EDITECH, is a consultant for the Italian Publishers Associaton (Associazione Italiana Editori) and board member for the International Digital Publishing Forum. She explained, “The Italian market is still in very early stages for certain genres like fiction, but some publishers are already quite advanced in their approach to digital.” She noted that there are huge variations in how advanced publishers are in their thinking, and how language remains a major factor when trying to think about publishing digitally worldwide. If one only publishes in Italian, the market remains very small.

Yes, Italian publishers may well have a lot to learn from what has happened in the US and UK e-books market, and hopefully the “delayed effect” on print books sales, as highlighted by Nielsen’s data, will give them some much-needed breathing space to watch, learn and react — because when change comes it will come quickly.

But let’s also not also underestimate Italians, whose remarkable sense of sprezzatura, has defined global fashion for decades and can make something appear to be casual that is actually meticulously thought out. No, the Italians may not have completely committed themselves to digital publishing, but you can be certain that whatever Italian publishing goes on to do next, be sure they’ll do it in style.

DISCUSS: How Much, if Any, Should Publishers Diversify Beyond Publishing?

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