By Amanda DeMarco
New York City is inconceivably complicated, but it’s also quite easy to navigate. That’s because it’s well-structured. At the 2013 Publisher’s Forum in Berlin last week, Prof. Dr. Heiko Beier of Moresophy presented this instructive (and optimistic) metaphor for publishers awash in information.
Big data was the main focus of the Forum: how can publishers organize, analyze, and benefit from the massive amounts of information they are confronted with at every point in their processes? How can they use it to better understand their customers? What about all of the information contained in their books, rarely catalogued in a meaningful enough way to make it accessible and therefore monetizable in smaller units than a single book? In this sense, the term “metadata” at the conference meant something far beyond product details — it meant precise information about content.
What’s clear is that publishers aren’t capable of handling any of this themselves. Naturally, the many service providers who spoke at the Forum recommended their solutions, but it’s a sentiment that echoed throughout the presentations.
The Forum’s organizer and Director of Klopotek, Helmut von Berg, gave a lively, charming closing German address, whose intimate, at times scolding tone demonstrated his close relationship to the leadership of the German publishing industry. He emphasized the urgent need for publishers to hire experts to attack the data issues they face, and to retool workflows to match the quicker pace of digital publishing: “It’s clear to me that I’m arguing provocatively. But it’s also clear to me that you can’t get around this.”
Another provocative voice in favor of outsourcing came from consultant Aljoscha Walser, who advised German publishers to send their manuscripts to Bosnia, where German native-speakers will edit them for 38 percent less. Or to outsource phone sales to a service provider, who, Walser’s research shows, will sell more effectively than your in-house sales team anyway. These examples were clearly chosen for their likelihood to make publishers squeamish, but the core of Walser’s presentation — that publishers should think of service providers as partners, trust them with important tasks, and ask their opinions in planning projects — is precisely the kind of advice publishers need to embrace.
Of course, outsourcing isn’t an option for everyone. Bookstore owner Sophie von Lenthe lamented the difficulty of maintaining an online presence for an independent bookshop: “It’s an ever-increasing amount of work for a yield that doesn’t grow proportionally.”
dotbooks: A Case Study in Lean Publishing
With all this talk of outsourcing, “lean” was a popular word at the conference. New German digital-only publisher dotbooks presented their strategy for publishing 35 books per month with a team of six.
dotbooks is working hard to distance itself from the frequent but mistaken assumption that it is involved in self-publishing. Until now, digital-first has basically meant self-publishing in Germany, and what it means for a publisher to have a real digital strategy is still emerging.
This became clear as attendees of the session (themselves the leadership of large publishing houses) expressed strong skepticism about dotbooks’ strategy. What’s really so innovative about it? Doesn’t it just operate like a traditional publisher, but do less? Why would an author ever choose dotbooks over a traditional publisher?
These questions were mostly misplaced, and overlooked the real critical points. As far as authors go, dotbooks books tend to be ones that other publishers aren’t capitalizing on — formerly out-of-print backlist titles, and midlist titles that are increasingly rejected for publication in the first place. Where they’re finding their customers is a more interesting question. Instead of asking if dotbooks is really innovative, a better question is if they’re moving too quickly for a nation of people adopting e-reading hesitantly. And as far as doing less, well it’s also costing them less to do it. The question is if the e-book sales will cover the costs of what they do do.
Thus, it’s questions of marketing and discoverability that are most interesting at this point. dotbooks publicist Sarah Mirschinka emphasized the extensive pathbreaking she has to do to reach readers in a market where promotional efforts are generally entirely aimed at the print version, with e-book sales gaining trickle-down benefits from print.