Well, Digital Book World 2013 is over, the attendants are trickling out into the crisp Manhattan evening, the exhibitors are breaking down their displays, and the hotel staff is setting up for the next event.
I feel like I learned a ton, but much of what I learned had to do with what a turmoil the publishing industry has been thrown into. I will plan to share more observations in the coming days, but the following are some of the key themes that seemed to pervade the conference:
Publishers and authors seek alternatives to Amazon
By far the dominant retail channel for digital books is Amazon. That makes almost everyone in the industry uncomfortable, so there seems to be an almost urgent quest to find alternatives. Barnes & Noble, Apple, and, to a lesser extent, Kobo, are some obvious ones. But there are also a number of other attempts to create platforms that include independent retail “stores,” whether online or inside of platform apps. Some of the most promising independent platforms are specialty platforms—such as Inkling in education and similar nonfiction and Storia in kid’s books.
The future of book discovery is a mystery
Book discovery refers to the way people say they discovered the books that they purchased, regardless where they actually bought them. From 2010 to 2012, discovery of books in bookstores went from 31% to 20%, a huge drop. Meanwhile, discovery from recommendations by other readers went from 14% to 19%, a significant increase. Publishers understand how to market to and through bookstores, but they feel they have little or no control over recommendations, so this shift in discovery is another great source of anxiety for traditional publishers. The advantages of larger publishers in printing and distribution have virtually no value in digital publishing; this shift in how consumers are discovering books further diminishes the traditional advantages of big publishers when it comes to digital. I think it is fair to say that the publishing industry is mystified about how to address discovery going forward.
Self-publishing is a game-changing trend
When an author like Hugh Howey breaks through with a smash hit book like WOOL, going digital first with no help from the publishing industry—traditional publishing is threatened. It is not just that one book or series had success outside of traditional publishing, but that it shows the way for other authors who can build their own brand to bypass the trade houses and keep more of the revenues for themselves. A great survey presented at the conference showed that self-publishing authors make the least money and traditionally-published authors make more, but hybrid authors who strategically do both make the most. Interesting stuff.
Children’s books are special
There is a lot of focus on children’s digital books, and they have their own special set of conundrums: it is generally parents, not the children, who find and buy the books; parents and children often read together; parents generally prefer physical books when reading with their children; it is not clear what interactions enhance rather than distract from the content of children’s books; and there is a sense that digital children’s books are directly competing with other media. Children’s books seem to me to be on nearly an entirely separate track in the digital world because their challenges and possibilities are particular and vast.
There is much skepticism around interactive books
The feeling of publishers toward interactive books is ambivalent. They are expensive to create, yet consumers do not seem to be willing to pay much of a premium for them. Also, they are currently difficult or impossible to create across many platforms. There is also a perceived blurring of the lines between interactive books and apps, and the sense is that apps just do not make any money. On the other hand, there is a sense that interactive books cannot be ignored. If someone breaks the code and can succeed with books that provide a richer reader/user experience, others will be scrambling to catch up. So interactive books represents yet another source of uncertainty among publishers about what the future holds for them.
In all, I cannot emphasize enough that the publishing industry is in tremendous flux. Some presenters cited small signs of hope that the pace of change may be settling down, but one cannot take in this whole conference without gathering an overwhelming sense that the end of the disruption is not in sight.