Facing the Attention Economy: Publishers Forum in Berlin

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

‘A massively distributed fight for attention’ rages in the marketplace, delegates to Germany’s Publishers’ Forum are told. Is consumer service the strategy?

At Berlin’s DBB Forum. The opening plenary of Publishers Forum on Monday (April 24). Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Publishing as a Service Industry
Rüdiger Wischenbart may be onto something with his “Going Full Circle” slogan for this year’s Publishers’ Forum, produced in Berlin with Klopotek’s backing.

On the first of the conference’s two days on Monday, speakers refer multiple times to the publishing business as a newly awakening service industry—in service to readers, to consumers.

We heard this as well at two recent industry events in New York City: PubTechConnect and Making Information Pay: Evolution of Delivery.

This concept of publishing as a service to readers came to be better defined by the end of the day: In an attention economy, service becomes the weapon of choice in capturing the consumer’s loyalty.

In a pre-conference interview with the Beyond the Book podcast’s Christopher Kenneally, Wischenbart set things up this way:

Rüdiger Wischenbart. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

“In continental Europe, we’re in a very weird situation right now. When you interview lots of publishers, you could think that we’re in a lull where nothing much is happening. Ebooks have not caught on as massively as in the US or in the UK. No big failures, no big crashes have been seen for quite a while. Even the mergers and acquisitions have a little bit calmed down. So many people think not much is happening.

“At the same time, we see with virtual realit, with machine learning, with big data analytics, with semantic, that when you bother about really looking into content and into consumers, you really literally are about to reinvent the whole game. That’s what we want to look into.”

Not for nothing is Publishers’ Forum annually one of the most thoughtful conferences of the year. Wischenbart—in working with Newbooks Solutions’ Klaus-Peter Stegen and under the patronage of Ulrich Klopotek von Glowczewski—seriously wants to prompt debate at his conference.

David Worlock. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

And so the day opened with longtime Publishers’ Forum stalwart David Worlock of Outsell. His gentle speaking style at times masked the difficulty of what he was saying. “What has emerged,” he told the gathering in his conference-opening remarks on “A Strategic Outlook for Publishing in 2017,” is “a services and solutions economy. Content is not king.

“Where we add value, how we establish ourselves as a unique point of value,” he said, is the key. “We’re building more services which take content from more than 800 sources. That act of selection, of selectivity” is the crucial part.

“Knowing our customer in a networked world is both obvious and difficult.” And it means, he told the audience, “Workflow…Content is for libraries. Services are for impresarios and entrepreneurs.”

‘In the fight for attention,’ Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn tells Publishers’ Forum, ‘our acquisition of Shelfie was about users sharing the print books from their reading past.’ Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

‘An Arms Race of Monetized Distraction’

Always the phrase-maker, Kobo CEO Michael Tamblyn followed Worlock, tempering his dependably upbeat nature with some of the ground-glass grit that Rakuten’s ownership seems to be imparting to the Toronto-based ebook retailer.

“Earn the readers’ attention. The attention economy cannot be ‘de-risked’ through price-management.”Michael Tamblyn

Tamblyn posited a “fifth wave” of challenge now faced by publishers. That fifth wave, he told us, “is about the fight for time. We live in an attention economy.”

In previous waves, he told us, the fear was that publishing wouldn’t adapt in time. In the fifth wave, the danger is not realizing there’s a competitive danger at all. “Online has become a massively distributed fight for attention,” he said.

Sixty percent, he said, of sales online are made through search: the customer knows what he or she wants. At Kobo, 10 percent of sales start “away from our site” because ads are appearing to readers, ads that are “based on what we know about you. Increasingly, we don’t wait for people to come to us. We go where they are.”

Indeed, we think of the Internet as “an arms race of monetized distraction,” he said, “there are slivers and shards of retail” throughout your online life. “Hoping to snag you.”

In fact, Tamblyn said, we’re heading for “a bookstore just for you,” digitally personalized to come-hither you in the cyber-skirmish for your attention.

And there it was, the service line: “We just need to be sure we’re there” for the consumers. “Earn the readers’ attention.” Because, Tamblyn told us, “The attention economy cannot be ‘de-risked’ through price-management.”

Publishing has quietly slipped into a tougher place. “Things,” Tamblyn said, “are just starting to get interesting.”

At Publishers’ Forum in Berlin on Monday (April 24). Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

‘Mobilize Your Audience’

Rob Grimshaw. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

As the day moved forward, the UK’s Rob Grimshaw of TES Global, echoed Tamblyn, telling the audience that it must “specialize to dominate,” “drive stickiness above all else,” and “win your audience’s time.”

Having turned around TES by creating a “teacher-to-teacher marketplace” of “free and paid class resources,” Grimshaw told the audience that teachers in the UK prepare half-a billion lessons per year. US teachers prepare 4 billion lessons annually.

His company’s intent, he said—here it comes—is to “create services” and “hold the attention of its teacher-users as a more lean, agile outfit.

Laura Nevanlinna. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

From Kaiken Entertainment’s Laura Nevanlinna—whose background lies under a sky filled with Angry Birds—was ready with a tip for the war of attention: “The beauty of ‘the full 360’ is keeping the audience engaged in your ecosystem.”

Nevanlinna’s message to publishing is that all appropriate media channels need to be developed in coherent, multi-layered stories. She’s looking for world-builders among publishers who aren’t trained to think of how many platforms a story can live on.

“A good story,” she said, “isn’t reliant on the place it was born.”

From Copyright Clearance Center, Michael Healy presentation, Publishers’ Forum

The Stealth Rights Assault

In what would become the day’s most serious sequence, Copyright Clearance Center’s Michael Healy laid out for the audience the sharp dangers rising on so many sides in terms of licensing intellectual property.

Michael Healy. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

Healy took, as his central concept, the call from the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Francis Gurry for the global copyright and licensing framework that publishing is only beginning to realize its need.

Governments, Healy told the audience, respond to populist calls for looser frameworks with copyright exceptions—which in the worst recent example, Canada’s 2012 Copyright Modernization Act, have seen publishers go under.

“What’s at risk?” Healy asked. “Academic licensing revenues, collective rights management, copyright itself.

“We face a precarious future,” he warned, as pressures in so many parts of the world’s markets are ratcheted up. “Transformation is underway. Copyright is under threat.”

Exploring this widening crisis with Healy were Holtzbrinck’s Joerg Pfuhl, Allrights Online’s Chris Kluiters, and attorney Ralph Oliver Graef.

“Knowing our customer in a networked world is both obvious and difficult…Content is for libraries. Services are for impresarios and entrepreneurs.”David Worlock

And what was finally agreed was that publishers are, in too many instances, unaware of what’s coming, unaccustomed so far to paying attention to rights licensing challenges, nowhere near working internationally, as Gurry advises.

Pfuhl pointed out that the same costly rulings suffered in Germany’s VG Wort situation could be suffered in other nations with copyright revenue collection service practices that could someday be called into question.

Graef looked at the scant directive on copyright that’s part of Europe’s Single Digital Market proposals, and Kluiters examined pressures in the academic sector.

“We seem to be in a remarkably hostile environment,” Healy told the audience, as rights challenges crop up in market after market, so frequently without a coherent response or even awareness among publishers.

“How do you balance the rights of the creators and the users of intellectual property?” It became clear that a coherent, coordinated, organized response from international publishing rapidly is becoming an acute need. And nobody seemed clearer on the difficulties of mounting an effective response than Holtzbrinck’s Pfuhl, who has made efforts in rights advocacy and witnessed how hard it can be to make rights holders’ arguments.

And neglect, it seems, lies at the heart of so many degraded rights scenarios. In the United States, Healy told us, no changes to the copyright framework have occurred since the 1970s: “No legislation since Apple was formed.”

From left, Najem Wali, Nermin Mollaoğlu, Rüdiger Wischenbart, and Jacks Thomas. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkis

And Diversity

A quiet, compelling conversation closed the day, Wischenbart speaking with London Book Fair director Jacks Thomas, Istanbul-based Kalem Agency founder Nermin Mollaoğlu, and Iraq-born author Najem Wali.

In an attention economy, service becomes the weapon of choice in capturing the consumer’s loyalty.

While Thomas spoke well to her rationale for the inclusivity conference that London Book Fair and the Publishers Association mounted in the UK, and Mollaoğlu was ready with penetrating observations about political diversity and how easily it’s subverted, the overall message stayed in place: even diversifying a badly imbalanced industry needs to be seen as a service to readers, to consumers, to publishing’s own people, and to society.

Publishers’ Forum’s delegates headed out to the traditional celebratory first-night dinner with a long day’s concepts to consider.

As Kenneally had put it in his Beyond the Book podcast, Wischenbart had once more brought to the stage the peculiar contrasts in where publishing stands today—”the notion that the business of books is expanding, converging, and fragmenting all at the same time.”

At Publishers’ Forum 2017. Image: Klopotek, Sven Serkin

More coverage from Publishing Perspectives on Publishers’ Forum 2017:

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 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.