UK Publishers Seek ‘Most Thrilling Outcome for Readers and Writers’

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

UK publishers are ready to capitalize on digitization as evidenced by the discussions at Monday’s Bookseller Futurebook Conference.

By Roger Tagholm

Faber CEO Stephen Page offered insight and aphorisms to remember

LONDON: Once again Faber Chief Executive Stephen Page proved the worth of his surprise appointment ten years ago — his predecessor Faber Chairman Matthew Evans plucked the then 36-year-old from HarperCollins to run the venerable, legacy publisher in 2001 — by giving a characteristically articulate and extremely well-received keynote address at the Bookseller’s Futurebook conference in London on Monday.

It was a textbook example of how to deliver such speeches — head up, engaging the audience, clearly passionate about what was being said. And, as ever, it was full of memorable nuggets that were tweeted and bounced around the blogosphere almost immediately:

  • “At Faber we have banned the phrase ‘I bought a book.’ What we like to say now is that we have licensed a copyright.”
  • “We don’t think of ourselves as a publisher any more — we’re about writers and readers.”
  • “The loosening of the hold of publishers on routes to the market has let to a riot of role changing — a kind of pantomime of cross-dressing. Retailers set up traditional publishing companies, agents become publishers, publishers talk about direct to consumer, publishers become technology companies…The pack of cards is being shuffled, the roles are all up for grabs.”

With more than 550 delegates, 54 speakers on two stages and an active, tweeting audience, this was an engaging conference that saw Bloomsbury’s Evan Schnittman, worldwide MD Sales and Marketing, Print and Digital, call for “enhanced hardbacks” — higher-priced hardbacks sold with the digital version – and an avalanche of data from research bodies Book Marketing Limited, the Book Industry Study Group and AT Kearney that confirmed what everybody knows: that digitization is happening faster than anyone could have predicted.

Amazon on Top, Kobo Offers Insight

Most telling of all was a pie-chart from BML which showed that 59% of consumers (4,000 book buyers were polled) bought their e-books from Amazon during August this year, with just 14% choosing the nearest rival, the iBookstore. MD Jo Henry even suggested that Amazon might one day buy Waterstone’s, “so that it would have its own showroom on the high street.” That caused a ruffle around the room, although of course, this is one purchase that the UK’s Office of Fair Trading would not let the giant get away with.

There was much interest in hearing from UK newcomers Kobo, whose Vendor Manager Lindsey Mooney revealed the kind of stats that its main competitor would never reveal. “Our price sweet spot for content is between £4 and £4.99, and this drops off above £9.99. The most popular path for purchase is through our website [rather than through retail partner WHSmith] and although the device has only been on sale for two weeks, it has already outstripped sales for our wireless reader for the whole year. The strongest sales time is between 8 and 12 p.m. and 30% of users read on more than one device.”

Kobo's Lindsey Mooney was all smiles about the brand's UK launch

She also introduced Pulse which enables readers to “feel the life of a book — the larger and brighter the pulse indicator is at the bottom of a page, the more social activity about that book there is.”  The level of detail was impressive — how many people are reading that title right now, for example — and naturally, this data about users will prove invaluable. “It may even be that we can go back to editors and say this chapter worked, but that one didn’t.” This last point caused some amusement afterwards, with one publisher miming calling Man Booker-winner Hilary Mantel: “Is that Hilary? Hi! The good news is they love chapter seven. Um, but we’ve had a few comments about chapter six. Any chance you could re-work it…?”

Objects vs. E-books: The War for Sales

Schnittman said that serendipity and discovery do not exist in a digital world, and he described the battle between print and digital as one between objects — the beautiful creations that are hardbacks, whose key features are permanence and display — versus convenience, such as the four books on a holiday maker’s Kindle. He repeated a key belief twice: “Print must thrive for digital to survive. For every print book we lose to an e-book, we lose money.”

Simon Andrews of mobile-focused agency Addictive coined a new acronym, GAFA, to refer to Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple — and believes people will pay more for content “if the process, the access is easy.” He stressed that publishers should spend more on experimentation. “Your split should be 80% on your bankers, 20% on experimentation.”

The conference was also a chance for two start-ups to make their pitch. Bardowl is a subscription model audiobook company, being advised by former Virgin Books boss Rob Shreeve, and ExpressReads is an e-book rental service headed up by former Lonely Planet MD Douglas Shatz. Both are involved in getting publishers to sign up so that they can access their content, and both are examples of the new energy, the new initiatives that digitization has heralded.

Publishers as Producers

Returning to Faber’s Stephen Page, his comments seemed to sum up what many in the industry inherently believe. While he’s hugely optimistic about the future, he believes changes in “structure, culture and imagination and sense of opportunity” are necessary. In a theme noted by a number of speakers, he spoke about the move from a trade to a consumer environment, and believes publishers have to step back and look at exactly what it is they do to earn the right to acquire a copyright. What are they going to do with that copyright in the myriad of opportunities the new world presents? Faber re-imagined a BBC political satire, turning it into Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone app, which went on to be nominated for a BAFTA. “Our Head of Digital, Henry Volans, is an editor who has learned many new skills over the last couple of years,” Page noted. “He is now more like a TV producer than a traditional publisher.”

Editors and publishers have to become digital architects now, said Page, “or the company must be structured to do that for them. There’s a clamor for adding technological skills in our industry. For me, an understanding of technology in the hands of creative people is far more important.”

He concluded: “We have to develop and value new marketing skills around multi-platform and surrender cumbersome old structures…Choices need to be made about the long-term management of authors’ engagement with their audience. Our old, publication-led, baton passing structures of promoting to the trade, with standalone publicity, sales and marketing departments must change. The circle of audience is closing…Our industry’s future will not be defined by what is affordable to extant businesses; it will be defined by those who imagine the most thrilling outcome for readers and writers.”

DISCUSS: What is the “New Publisher”?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).