By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Agonizing Over the Future of Books’
“Nobody is asking questions about the future of wine, so why can’t we stop agonizing about the future of books?”
As charmingly logical as Hachette Livre CEO and Chairman Arnaud Nourry’s comparison of winemaking and publishing seemed, the question he asked was answered Sunday in the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) 31st Congress by a multiple testaments of local-over-global interests.
This is not to say that one vineyard’s best vintage is the next estate’s grape juice, but many publishers speaking on panels during the day found themselves emphasizing how differently their markets are positioned, albeit in the context of the global viewpoint represented by the IPA’s service to the international community.
A case in point was the energetic commentary of New Delhi’s Juggernaut Books publisher, Chiki Sarkar, whose experience of the industry in her own marketplace highlighted the morning topic: “Is small the next big thing?”
“My job is not to think about what works internationally,” Sarkar said, “but to be the top of the world in India. We have more people under 30 than any other country in the world,” she said. “I’m young, I’m impatient, I’m hungry.”
Sarkar encouraged the gathering of several hundred publishers at Olympia London to use new technologies to learn who their readers are, who consumes their output, to bring the readership into better focus.
“I want to make great books,” she said, “but I want to sell the hell out of them.”
The IPA’s program, well-attended and designed as a single track of sessions, was built on a theme of “our role and our responsibility — where does it begin and where does it end?”
One of Sarkar’s fellow panelists was Joachim Kaufmann, whose experience in Germany has run from the size of Bonnier Carlsen and Random House to the family-owned Kaufmann Publishing House, a mid-size company established in 1816. Kaufmann cautioned that, “It’s not survival of the biggest but survival of the fittest. [Nevertheless] in global publishing, size matters.”
But Egill Örn Jóhannsson, General Manager of Iceland’s Forlagið, pointed out that sales of international rights, while “not the core business,” are indispensable for the publishers of a small nation like Iceland, and he insisted that small size is, indeed, where many will find their success: “In the long run, changes [in publishing] are necessary and good. [But] being small can be good…[with] the agility to move faster than the big ones. Be lean, be mean, be aggressive. Small will be the next big thing.”
One of the more sizable forces in the room, China, was represented by Tan Yue of the China Publishing Group, who spoke of what might be considered “small” issues in a global context: “Ancient wisdom” from the millennia of Chinese history, he said, is of particular interest to today’s young readers in China. He went on to say that China’s approach to the world market requires it to approach carefully: “We must learn from developed nations experiencing globalization,” he said. “We must learn to cooperate with international publishers,” particularly in a search for how to “use the Internet to spread books across the world, how to organize global publishing.”
Hachette’s Nourry on the China Controversy
It was the other major force on stage early in the day — Hachette’s Nourry — who triggered some considerable consternation among many delegates by suggesting that IPA President Richard Charkin may have made a mistake of some kind in accepting the application of the Chinese delegation at Frankfurt Book Fair for membership in IPA.
Nourry’s initial comment was this:
“As for China, where some disturbing developments have been taking place of late, well, let me turn to Richard Charkin. Richard, I hope you knew what you were doing when you supported the Publishers Association of China’s application to become members of the IPA in Frankfurt last year. It was a generous and optimistic initiative, and generosity and optimism come high on my list of favorite qualities. I just hope we’ll still be comfortable with it in the months and years to come.”
Nourry’s reference was apparently to the incidents of Hong Kong publishers disappearing for some time near the end of last year and into the early part of 2016. And in a follow-up question from the conference floor, Nourry was questioned about his comments by a Chinese delegate.
Hachette’s chief seemed to be at pains to clarify that he had not meant to criticize Charkin, nor that he was unhappy that China’s publishers are members of the IPA. Nevertheless, the commentary about Nourry’s comments in “the halls” — the networking conversations during breaks — was decidedly mixed.
As The Bookseller Editor Philip Jones is reporting, the acceptance of China’s bid for IPA membership, like that of Saudi Arabia’s, has not been without prior controversy. Jones writes:
“The Bookseller reported in January that that the IPA membership remained deeply split over China’s admission, with the German Publishers & Booksellers Association, the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, deeply concerned.
“Other country members, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, France and Switzerland, are understood to share some of Germany’s concerns, given the IPA’s major focus on the issue of Freedom to Publish.”
For his part, Charkin tells The Bookseller:
“China was elected democratically to membership of the IPA, so it’s not [a] question of whether or not I regret it.
“The IPA’s role is to support publishing industries around the world, the Publishers Association of China is a very important part of global publishing environment: in China as in many other countries there are big challenges and IPA works with all our members to help them overcome these.”
Certainly the incident seemed to eclipse most of the larger points that Nourry had come to make about the durability of the book in the digital age and the resilience of publishing in challenging times:
“Books have so far successfully overcome the digital challenge of the 21st century, and turned what was a catastrophe for many industries into a source of incremental revenue. Ebooks now account for something like 10 percent on average of our business worldwide, more like 20 to 25 percent in the USA and here in the UK.”
Indeed, in his original remarks the leader of the world’s third largest publisher had come to proclaim a bit of trade victory over naysayers of the digital age:
“As recently as five years ago, all manner of self-proclaimed experts predicted the demise of the printed book. Publishers, they said, would at best have to scrap their distribution facilities and become little more than online marketers. At worst, they would disappear altogether, swept away by the wave of self-publishing.
“It just did not happen.
“We are the only “media” industry to have successfully ridden the first digital wave.
“The end of the bubble notwithstanding, our industry is stronger than ever, and you know why:
“In a world overflowing with data, works and opinions, people need familiar landmarks more than ever — brands that act as quality labels and ensure that the goods on offer have been curated, checked, approved and deemed worthy of their attention and money by people who put their reputation and livelihood on the line by doing so.”
A Call for a Study of the Reader of the Future
It would soon fall to two women of comparatively ground-level operations to testify to that potential Nourry described for books speaking beyond their own industry.
In a panel ably hosted by Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper — with a quick update on international statistics in youth reading — approaches to the readers of tomorrow were given urgent eloquence.
Hermione Ireland was on-hand to talk about the Worldreader program, based in San Francisco, and available to as many as 16.5 million people in its work to make a digital library of literature available to readers in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Ireland cited a 178-percent uptick in library usage in areas served, and more than 27 million hours of reading since the launch of the program.
And the Emirati publisher and literacy advocate Bodour Al Qasimi spoke of founding Kalimat, the first house dedicated to publishing children’s work in Arabic. Bodour’s messaging falls along the lines of the growing digital-age awareness of the importance of the reader and the writer. And to that end, she stresses the need for publishers to understand what’s who the consumer is and what that consumer wants.
“Most writers write because they love to write,” she said. “We have to support them.”
Bodour spoke about going to a refugee camp in Jordan and being convinced of “how important it is for those kids to have books.” Her response, in that instance, was to conduct workshops on-site and to donate a library of some 3,000 titles to the camp.
The print book will persist, Bodour agreed with most of the speakers of the day. But publishing, she said, must stay ahead of the game. “This is not business as usual.” And while agreeing with other speakers, Worldreader’s Ireland included, that “kids are really distracted today,” she’s concerned — in part because her own daughter once told her that books are “boring” — that the publishing industry find out what its crucial younger audience is looking for.
“In the Arab market, you know that our book fairs are consumer book fairs. So as publishers we spend a lot of time interacting directly with our consumers. This gives us first-hand knowledge of what our readers really want.
“As publishers, we can use this opportunity to create books directly for our readers. At Kalimat, we have taken this a step further, creating a consumer committee. We ask children what books they like, what books they don’t like. It’s really important to listen to your consumers. “
So important does Bodour see this close, listening role for publishers that she closed her statement by issuing a call to the IPA to commission a study on who the readers of 2030 and 2040 will be.
“It’s really important that our children have…intellectual curiosity.” For her, she said, “literacy” means more than simple reading skills. It means the ability “to gain access to the world of knowledge, to synthesize information from different sources, and evaluate arguments.”
“If we’ve learned any lessons since the start of this revolution, it is that we have to be ahead of the curve, we have to be a step ahead, it’s a must and not a luxury. What kind of readers are we going to have in 2030 or 2040? I’d like to know that. I’d like to suggest that we commission a report on what the future trends of reading are. How will we consume books? Once we have that data, we can convene and create the best strategy for our industry, for what’s coming ahead.
That Next Big Thing
By this point in the afternoon, we had seen and heard from more of the “small” talking to the big, new talking to the old, mission talking to power.
Considering the organization’s global outlines, the arc of the day at the International Publishers Association’s 31st congress was one that turned on smaller efforts, voices, contexts from Singapore (Fei Chen Lee-Head) to Turkey (Elif Shafak); from Egypt (Alaa Al Aswany) to Nigeria (Bibi Bakre-Yusuf); and from Charlie Hebdo attorney Richard Malko’s blistering indictment of European Commission legislative communication on copyright to Pen International John Rauston Saul’s concern for non-state action that a state refuses to step in and prevent.
If this was “agonizing” over books, it was valuable agonizing.
And repeatedly, the mandate for local success to fund global progress — and for the hope of change that might start in small places, among young or under-served people, and scale up into international impact — never left the room.
“This is ‘diversity’ with a small ‘d,'” said Jonathan Nowell, the day’s emcee, in his closing comments. “But is diversity sustainable for us through effective copyright legislation? We need to fight the perception among governments that copyright is broken. It is not broken.”
Jacks Thomas’ direction of London Book Fair’s welcome to the IPA proved to be a smart move. In a year when no single country is here as the “market focus” of the week (Poland will take that role in 2017 at LBF), the IPA’s exercise was always cordial but frequently forthright, and little ground was given on important points. The event’s sponsors included Nielsen, Sharjah Book Authority, and CPI.
“In the city, streets belong to man. But women definitely read more and make people around them read more,” Turkey’s Elif Shafak told us near the end of the day, as she spoke to the importance of social media in bringing issues and solutions to light.
“There’s another zone there that we haven’t fully cut into yet. The rise of sexism is something we don’t talk about much…People go to social media to get information” in her part of the world. “Twitter is a political platform.”
The potential and capability of the IPA’s place in an industry and world still moving fast into unclear territories finally came into focus as the UK author Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, spoke to us of how “author incomes have declined catastrophically.”
What Pullman had come to say was that internal industry rifts might be the most damaging factors on the modern publishing landscape. “If I were a publisher, I’d ask myself what makes me valuable to writer and reader.”
“We learn from each other,” Elif Shafak told us. And so we did.
After the conference on Sunday, the IPA conferred its newly renamed Prix Voltaire on Saudi dissident Raif Badawi.