BEA 2014: The Book Keeps On A-Changin’
Time to brush the dust off of this blog and share my first ever experience of BookExpo America. Not only are my feet sore from traipsing across the massive conference, but my mind is bursting with new ideas and insights about this constantly changing book landscape.
One of the first sessions I sat in on was the very philosophical panel, "Beyond Authors: Self-Publishing and the 'New' Agents," which asked, "What is the role of an agent in an increasingly digital and self-published world?" The answers were not always positive. Steven Axelrod, owner of The Axelrod Literary Agency, sees more and more authors self-publish their work on Kindle instead of working with an agent. The switch is fueled purely by greater profits. "The math is the math," said Axelrod, "Once we were in competition with publishers, which we understood, but now we are also competing with retailers like Kobo and Amazon which is completely new territory."
Other panelists were a bit more optimistic. Jason Allen Ashlock, content strategist and product designer for The Frontier Project, spoke of the transformation ahead for literary agents. "Publishing used to be a very linear value chain from the author, to the agent, to the publisher, to the retailer. Now that value chain is more of a web and there are many ways to get from point A to point B. In this new world the agent must be a 'radical mediator' between the many avenues to publishing and promoting an authors' work."
Robert Gottlieb, CEO of Trident Media Group Agency, argued that agents are not entirely replaceable by retailers like Kobo and Amazon. Relying on any one publishing platform or marketing outlet is not wise, said Gottlieb, especially considering the current Hachette-Amazon standoff. An agent, Gottlieb argued, can get the author's work into more channels and iterations so that the author has greater control over their own content. "When you are published in one ecosystem, whatever happens in that ecosystem, you're at the mercy of that system," said Gottlieb, "If you have options and you are published in a variety of tributaries, audio, foreign, traditional books, and ebooks, you are in a much stronger position to dictate where you are in the future."
Another great session I sat in on yesterday was on the topic of "book chunking"-a concept that is not entirely new to the book industry but which has gained traction as technology has made it easier to parse books by chapter, topic, and even memorable quotes.
Robert Kasher, VP of business development at Firstsource, began the discussion by defining what chunking is and what solutions are already on the market. "We think of ourselves as book publishers," said Kasher, "Not content creators. But books are multiple pieces of content, including audio, images, and video. We need to be able to take those different pieces and make them available in different ways."
Some of the solutions already available to publishers are Slicebooks (in which Ingram recently invested $4.5 million), Amnet (an Indian company that has created an XML solution for recombining book content), and Ictect (a software solution that publishers can customize for their own needs.).
Successful chunking requires more than a software tool, cautioned Laura Dawson, product manager at Bowker. Publishers need to implement standard identifiers and metadata into their works for chunking to be effective. Dawson discussed tags that are format-based (chapters of books) and content-based (semantic tags that pick out content meaning). These types of tagging disengage content from design, said Dawson, giving publishers the flexibility to repurpose content in innumerable ways.
"But you have to tag carefully and consensually," Dawson emphasized, "This is where standards like ISBN, ISNI, and DOI come in. Chunking only works if tagging is standard across all platforms. Otherwise it is a mishmash and users still can't find what they want."
And even with the right identifiers and tags, some books, Dawson said, are simply not as easy to pull apart and recombine. While reference, textbooks, and non-fiction works can be easier to section off, the novel is not so easily parsed. There are of course exceptions to this rule. For example, a novel that tells a story from multiple characters' perspectives could be separated by those different narratives into several novels. On the other hand, math textbooks are harder separate because sections of mathematics course books tend to build upon concepts explored and explained in earlier sections.
I'll be back on the BEA floor all day Friday. If you would like to meet up, please don't hesitate to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy conferencing!