My talk at Tools of Change for Publishing in Frankfurt, october 5th 2010 – Part one
I hate change. Like you. Secretly, deeply, I hate to change my habits. I secretly bless any routine that allows me not to think whenever I want to act. And most importantly, I hate change when it comes from outside. Today, publishing industry is facing the urge to change. And change comes from outside. Until recently, digital shift was for others. Other cultural industries, like music or movies. Other areas of publishing, such as the STM sector.
Change was not for us. Our readers, of fiction and non-fiction, would never read anything besides the perfect object that is the printed book.
Change comes from the web. Today, Google is a verb, and if Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth most populated country in the world..
What offer do we have for the people of this country without borders ? Those who have a life online, those who naturally read on screens, who prolong their existence on the web ?
Today there are terminals that allow immersive reading, and they’re comfortable enough. When a large digital offer is available, with a simple way to access it, the ebooks market may start. This is what happened in the USA : the launch of Kindle, which offers both a comfortable enough reading experience, and a large choice from a vast catalog, started the fast increase of ebooks sales. The arrival of other offers – Barnes & Noble, Borders -, and finally the spectacular launch of the iPad and its iBooks store, and the e-readers’ price decline that followed, amplified the phenomenon.
In France, this market is still in its infancy.
Several reasons for this discrepancy :
1) There was no equivalent here to the « Kindle effect » : Connected e-readers are just coming.
2) The catalog of works available is still limited : about 60.000 titles available, while we have 500.000 living titles.
3) Here, publishing groups are also distribution groups : the control of digital distribution by these groups is seen as essential. This led to the creation of multiple digital distribution platforms, each linked to a group, which made the presentation of offers to resellers more complex.
4) There is a significant difference in VAT between the printed book and eBook. From 5.5% (which editors were used to), it goes to 19.6%, while consumers are waiting for a considerably cheaper ebook than its printed version. Even if ebooks were as expensive as the printed version, which is not acceptable to the consumer, the publisher’s net income would decrease.
6) Since 1981, France has been under the Lang law, which allows publishers to set the price of their own books, and forbids retailers to give more than 5% discounts. Thanks to this law, bookstores have been able to resist and exist on the side of cultural supermarkets, hypermarkets and on line stores.
For almost thirty years, publishers have been setting the price of books. So far the digital book has not fallen under this law. Last month, Senator Jacques Legendre proposed a law that would allow publishers to set the retail price of ebooks.
Some reasons to think that things will accelerate in 2011 :
- Publishers’ hard work on making the digital offer larger
- Upcoming release of several connected e-readers
- Arrival of the iPad
- Proliferation of sales channels
- Arrival of the Independent French booksellers’ website
- Agreements in progress between the different digital distribution platforms
- Law on ebooks’ price
- Plans for a law to align the digital books’ VAT on the printed books’ VAT.
It is therefore very likely that we will have our own « ebook time ».
« Ebook time » is the first step : building a digital offer is a big opportunity for publishers to evolve.
This effort has to be part of a wider vision on the future of reading, and has to come with the awareness that deep changes are happening in our environment.
Those of you who have experienced or are currently experiencing this effort know how much it is complicated : obstacles are many, of all kinds, and it takes a strong will and an unwavering belief to succeed. Why talk about « ebook time » ? Because the book, once it is separated from its support, will certainly be transformed – in shape, in use, in commercialization, in many aspects we do not all suspect today. We will certainly see a lot of deep transformations in the publishing world in the coming years. The first step, this “ebook time” we are living now, consists in providing digital versions of our books to our readers, in order to allow them to read these books with the terminal of their choice. Apparently, this is not revolutionary. In reality, it represents many evolutions in the way we work.
I would like to quote the words of Laura Dawson, as quoted on Donn Linn’s blog. She asked him, just leaving a Future of the books conference : “When are we going to be able to go to meetings like this and not hear about someone beginning to use an XML workflow, setting up a Digital Asset Management system or getting their metadata organized properly without its being treated as something unusual and remarkable ?” I totally agree with Laura’s impatience. We don’t organize conferences about tools we are using each day, that are part of our life. DAM, for example, should be part of our lives now. Should. But… the example of the implementation of a DAM system perfectly illustrates what I mean when I talk about obstacles.
It is not so easy to decide to implement a DAM, even when you know that your company needs it : it is a big investment. But its implementation is nothing compared to the effort required for this tool to be adopted and used.
Typically, it is necessary to train all users for whom using the DAM will first appear as a nuisance, an unnecessary complication invented to complicate the work. And users are right : the only way to get them to make the immense effort to change their work routine is to show them that this effort, once it becomes a new habit, is profitable, which they will realize only when it is part of their routine, and when everyone has made that change.
At Editis, where I work, dozens of training courses were organized before archiving projects in the DAM became a habit. And it is not finished : I was talking last week with a PR woman, who told me that she never used it, despite the training. She just didn’t go far enough in the learning curve to see the real benefits she could find in it. My conclusion in this case never is “Oh my God, they seem to understand nothing.” But : “Obviously, the message hasn’t gone through, we did not go far enough, we did not adequately explain – more support is needed.”
This “ebook time”, as you know, is not very glamorous. From the outside it looks easy. You, here, all know it is not. Two actions must be conducted in parallel : one consists in setting new processes to ensure that each new book is published both in P and E version. The other is to digitize the backlist. My purpose here is not to detail the process, but to show different policy options that can be considered for this purpose.
One is to create a dedicated team of specialists to intervene in order not to disrupt the traditional sector. This team will be responsible for contacting authors to obtain the digital rights. It will recover files from printed books, choose the format, make design choices, contact a contractor for the conversions, check the quality of files. This team is fast, brilliant and young. People in it know the vocabulary. They know all about formats and DRM complications. They use beautiful acronyms – such as CSS or DTD – in their conversations.
Meanwhile, the traditional teams are not disturbed and continue to practice their art without worrying about changes that are supported by the “digital team”.
There is another approach. It is slower. It requires much more effort.
What about starting to bug your editors with digital publishing ? Some will be disgruntled at first. Many will say : “I have books to make”. I have been dealing with digital technologies for years, since the old days of CD-Rom, and the sentence I’ve heard the most often among publishers has been the following : “I’ve got books to make.” Yes, you have books to make. I know.
Do you want your books to be read ? Do you know that tomorrow, more and more readers will read digital ? Are you only interested in readers who prefer printed books ?
Do you think that your author is not interested in knowing that you control the quality of presentation of his book on all supports in which it appears ? Yes, the other option is to ensure that change arrives inside publishing houses. It is to work on making everyone understand and know why their job is changing.
This of course will have to be done with the help of a dedicated support team, specialized in the daily implementation of change. This team is not present to take the publishers’ place, but to transmit the knowledge and know-how that will gradually lead publishers to change their way of working and to adapt to this change. Clearly editors will not be turned into developers. Probably, we’ll have to complete teams with new talents, to increase our technological level.
Fortunately, publishers are used to living in uncertainty. Each publishing project is an adventure. Success is never guaranteed. They take risks. If we take the time to present and explain the challenges of the digital “revolution”, they will feel involved. Things have already changed a lot. There is no need today to define each acronym or technical word. The first sign that change is underway is when one realizes that the vocabulary is shared, and that “scary words” become common. (access part 2)