As London Book Fair Looms: Debates Natural and Not

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

1 April 2014 iStock_000011334536Small photog KikkerDirk texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday
  2. As London Book Fair Looms: Debates Natural and Not
  3. Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. BST
  4. Last Week’s Topic: Name That Startup!

Our Live #EtherIssue Chat is Wednesday

Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Edward Nawotka and I will host a live Twitter chat on this week’s Ether topic(s) at 11 a.m. ET / 8 a.m. PT—and that’s 4 p.m. BST in London. We’ll use the hashtag #EtherIssue as we do weekly. Join us and watch for @PubPerspectives and @Porter_Anderson on Twitter.

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As London Book Fair Looms: Debates Natural and Not

By Porter Anderson

We hardly need wait for Question Time, the eagerly anticipated closing session coming up at 4:25 p.m. London time on Monday at the London Book Fair’s Publishing for Digital Minds Conference at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Broad Sanctuary. (We’ll have full live coverage, April 7, on hashtag #DigiConf14.)

Even as Sourcebooks founder Dominique Raccah (who’s on the Question Time panel) tweeted out a request from Chicago for attendees’ questions in advance this week, one of her fellow panelists, the UK’s Nick Harkaway was busy taking on comments from Waterstones founder Tim Waterstone.

And what “came to pass” was just about as stark an element of the digital disruption as that phrasing I just did. I sounded like the King James’ Version of the Bible, right? “And it came to pass that there were shepherds abiding in the fields, reading singles and serials on their backlit Holy Kindle Fires.”

At times the industry gets itself into binds that might remind theologians of biblical translation battles. How many developmental editors can dance on the head of a pin?

Tim Waterstone

Tim Waterstone

If we think of the venerable Waterstone camp as our Jamesians, we aren’t surprised, really, to hear Hannah Furness at the Telegraph quote him this way from comments made at the Oxford Literary Festival in Waterstones founder: e-book revolution will soon go into decline:

I think you read and hear more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I’ve known. The ebooks have developed a share of the market, of course they have, but every indication – certainly from America – shows the share is already in decline. The indications are that it will do exactly the same in the UK.

Nick Harkaway

> Nick Harkaway

And then our Revised Standard Edition? Here’s Harkaway diving into the pages of the Guardian, fairly spoiling to take on the good fight, in Paper vs. digital reading is an exhausted debate:

The digital revolution is going into a decline, Tim Waterstone told the Oxford literary festival. Well, it’s an attention-grabbing statement, ideally suited to our culture of assertive headlines, but it’s probably not true.

As with so many of our publishing disagreements, everything here is being conducted, at least partly, in blindfolds. We don’t have hard numbers on sales, especially in ebooks.

We do have a brand-new look at the UK’s first quarter in terms of print.

John Lewis, who has newly joined The Bookseller staff in London to tot up numbers of the kind we all love to hurl, like Bible verses, at each other, in First quarter sales spotlight, writes:

Though the first quarter’s overall results are still being calculated, we can draw some early conclusions for the first 12 weeks of 2014. Physical books sales registered at 20,803,246 through BookScan’s TCM Top 5,000 list, down 3.5% on last year’s Q1, when that number exceeded 21.5 million.

Not great news, whether you’re in the Sunday School class that appreciates the King James or the Revised Standard— none of us probably wants to see any books selling less briskly. Lewis goes on:

The value decline of the Top 5,000 at this point is in line with and, at 6.3%, just under 2013’s overall value decline of 6.5%. The value of the top 10 authors took a substantial tumble, however—£14.8m in 2013 versus £12.8m in 2014 (-14%).

What’s more, Lewis reports, while eight books had broken the 100,000-copy sales line by this time last year in the UK, only four books have been seen to do it this year.

So the Waterstone-Harkaway standoff arrives against a backdrop of  worry that maybe it’s reading overall we need to think about. Maybe banging around with predictions about which format is sturdier than another is akin to arguing about which deck chairs need to be nearer the stern than the bow.

In fact, there are some tantalizing clues to the digital side of things in the UK to consider, thanks to Nielsen, the same folks who do Bookscan’s point-of-sale work for print.

Steve Bohme

Steve Bohme

In mid-March, Nielsen’s Steve Bohme told the company’s annual conference that in surveying 3,000 consumers per month, the Nielsen Books & Consumers in 2013 study indicated that both the volume and value of book purchases in 2012, together, were down 4 percent.

From the release, emphasis mine:

The decrease in 2013 came despite a 20-percent increase in ebook purchasing, with UK consumers buying an estimated 80 million ebooks in 2013, with spending on this format reaching £300 million.

Ebooks, Bohme told the assembly, according to the news release:

…accounted for one in four consumer book purchases in 2013 [in the UK], up from one in five in 2012, with their share of spending rising to 14%. In Adult Fiction, the ebook share rose from one in three books bought in 2012, to over 40% of purchases in 2013, with ebooks also gaining in Adult NonFiction (to one in eight purchases) and in Children’s books (up to one in ten).

Women, the Books & Consumers findings release indicated, were “more likely to buy their books digitally than males” and yet “it was a decline in female purchases that fueled the overall drop in book buying in 2013. ” When Fifty Shades of Grey was factored out, Nielsen’s info indicated, “younger females bought more books in 2013 than in 2012.”

  • The strongest UK ebook-buying demographic in 2013 was women 35 and older, Nielsen’s information indicated.
  • The weakest ebook-purchasing demographic in the UK in 2013, per Nielsen? Five- to 8-year-olds. I don’t know about you, but I’ll forgive the 5- to 8-year-old set.

“The growth in ebook purchases in 2013,” Nielsen’s release tells us, “accelerated the switch from buying books in-person to online/via a device, with the online share up from 48 percent to 51 percent of volume in 2013 itself, and doubling since 2009.”

Where does this leave us?

Well, for one, this week’s Waterstonian-Harkawavian Throwdown tells us, more clearly than anything else, that there are a lot of folks who still are seeing the “message”—or maybe the eventuality—of the digital disruption in publishing as a win-lose situation. A competition. A battle of pixels and paper, between proponents of formats, not between reading itself and the looming power of digital entertainment overall.

Harkaway, in his rejoinder to Waterstone, gets at this very keenly:

A rather more important discussion than whether one half of this indivisible whole will somehow shed the other would be about this government’s seeming determination to destroy our system of public libraries and dispense with Britain’s access to knowledge (especially, it seems, in prisons). It strikes me that an infantilised public is far easier to control than one that reads, that prisoners are far easier to demonise when they are cut out of national cultural conversation, and that books – consistently found to increase empathy in those who read them – play against the mean-spirited assault on welfare and disability benefits presently under way.

And yet, even now, you can walk from person to person in publishing, around the floor next week at Earls Court during London Book Fair (April 8-10), if you’ll join us, or at the Javits Center for BookExpo America in New York City (May 29-31), please come along…and it can almost seem you’re hearing people talk about different industries…as if our own debates inside the industry! the industry! were the point…as if digital weren’t bigger than publishing…as if what’s at stake here were really only a glowing plastic e-reader vs. a gorgeous hardcover print book.

Here’s Harkaway, leading us into our own Question Time for Wednesday’s #EtherIssue discussion on Twitter:

If the book trade has drawn one obvious flaw from the corporate culture that took it over in the 80s, it’s that it tends to be a bit inward-looking, and to imagine that decisions made in and about the industry affect only the industry…It’s time to look beyond our borders rather more, and see that we are part of the world. Paper vs digital will take care of itself. That being the case, we have bigger fish to fry.

As in LBF’s coming “Great Debate” on April 8 (this year’s proposition: Bigger is Always Better), let’s call some questions of our own.

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Wednesday’s #EtherIs­sue at 11 a.m. ET / 4 p.m. BST

Please give these questions a bit of thought, and join us:

  • Is it really feasible to imagine that digital reading is going to go into a decline at this late stage?
  • By the same token, is it feasible to imagine print disappearing on us?
  • More importantly, isn’t it possible that the status and health of reading are more important than any medium, format, or trend? Is Harkaway right that print vs. digital is an exhausted debate?
  • Why do you think we have this King James vs. Revised Standard type of skirmish surfacing and resurfacing so frequently?
  • And let’s have a gut check: As London Book Fair 2014 rolls into Earls Court for the last time before the 2015 move to the Olympia complex, where are we now? Where are we headed? Is print-vs.-ebook the either-or to talk about? Or something else?

We’d love your input on Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. BST on hashtag #EtherIssue — see you then.

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Last Week’s Topic: Name That Startup!

Photo: Luis Mendo

Photo: Luis Mendo

Not long after we concluded our #EtherIssue live discussion on the question of publishing startups, their place in things—and their founders’ peculiar disdain for sensible, meaningful names—we had word that Henrik Berggren and David Kjelkerud had sold Readmill to Dropbox. The system is being closed, as Laura Hazard Owen reports here in Dropbox acquires and absorbs reading app Readmill; app will be shut down.

Berggren and Kjelkerud’s Epilogue, as they have titled a swan-song article, has drawn keen interest and no small amount of praise for its honesty. The two write, in part:

Readmill’s story ends here. Many challenges in the world of ebooks remain unsolved, and we failed to create a sustainable platform for reading. For this, we’re deeply sorry. We considered every option before making the difficult decision to end the product that brought us together.

Readmill_Logo_Vertical_On_WhiteAs many have praised these co-founders’ willingness to concede that their business model never matched the promise of their social-reading technology, some, including Baldur Bjarnason in So long, Readmill, and thanks for all the fish, have pointed out that even the tech’s capabilities might not have been what the market wanted:

Unlike most other firms designing ebook readers, Readmill understood that all of the typographic variables are interconnected. Unlike others, their defaults were beautiful to read. It’s kind of hard to imagine it going any differently, though. Most people just don’t like reading in public. Publishers just aren’t that interested in working with startups. Ebook retailers don’t care for supporting competing reading apps. Sometimes a beautiful product just doesn’t make a successful product—it just ends up being a beautiful thing that not enough people want.

And that, of course, is a perfect expression of what we might think of as the startup entrepreneur’s nightmare—”a beautiful thing that not enough people want”—great execution on a concept the consumers never go for.

I’d just point out that the name “Readmill” may not have done much to help people who might have liked the product find it or understand it.

I don’t think company-name cuteness helps these fledgling ventures. And I’m continually surprised at startup entrepreneurs who seem to think their clever concoctions in the naming department will get them anything but overlooked. Why not tell us about a startup’s intent or capability? For example, would Author-Reader Connections not be a lot more informative than Libboo?

Say what? Sometimes you have to wonder what VC people are thinking when they put money into these ridiculously named outfits.

HiIn our #EtherIssue discussion, we noted the public rollout of Craig Mod’s new Hi startup site. (“Hi” beats “Bye,” we can say that for it.) This is a site I’ve enjoyed watching during beta. It’s an exercise in “narrative mapping” in a “full-stack” platform for image and text.

We asked our live-chatting colleagues what elements of publishing-startup efforts have struck them most sharply. And we certainly got some response. As you can see from this sampling, our fine gathering of respondents wasn’t in the mood for a lot of cuteness and light, either.

Author Lorna Suzuki (who has just announced that her Imago Chronicles: A Warrior’s Tale is being co-produced in Hollywood by Oscar winner Don Carmody and independent filmmaker Michy Gustavia) echoed what I’ve been saying:

Vook’s Matthew Cavnar came to the conversation with a clear-eyed note on how a startup needs to have its value proposition ready and provable:

Some of the discussion centered on the current popularity of writing-in-public, as exemplified in the Wattpad model.

Others wondered about our use of the term, startup.

Several folks shared some of the startups they know or have heard about

Elizabeth Dimarco, herself from a startup called the Books I Love App (and who came up with “Name That Startup!) pointed out that there can be a gap in the tech-savviness of startup personnel and their target consumers:

Andrew Rhomberg of Jellybooks joined in, in part to say that his candy-named site will be introducing author tools during London Book Fair.

Cavnar offered a useful set of types of startups…

…and a key problem many startups face in trying to fill a niche:

And Paris-based startup entrepreneur Ricardo Fayet (Reedsy.com — another questionable name) pointed out that commercial success is sometimes nowhere near inspiration.

And with much more give and take, we ended the discussion with our frequent pragmatist among authors, Carol Buchanan reminding us that few readers (let alone writers) have a lot of spare time to put into the startup world:

Join us Wednesday this week at 11 a.m. ET, 4 p.m. British Summer Time, BST, and 5 p.m. GMT, for another live #EtherIssue discussion.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 33-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Issues on the Ether column appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays, followed by an #EtherIssue live discussion on Twitter on Wednesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether articles are read at Thought Catalog and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. He writes the Porter Anderson Meets column weekly for The Bookseller‘s Friday magazine in London, following a live #PorterMeets Twitter interview with a newsmaker on Mondays. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com. Find him at Google+


Main image – iStockphoto: KikkerDirk

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.