Books below the Cloud and on the Ground at BEA
It is possible nowadays to learn everything you need to know about what is going on in the world without leaving your Wifi, Internet and cable connections. Of course, a little effort at search and discovery will help. While most helpful can be direct connection with the real world through other activities, it has become increasingly optional for the big picture.
In other words, you can do it all at home or in the office, even if it does help to get out into the world to check things out once in a while.
So, armed with the foregoing insights, I have been assembling BEA take-aways from the lively and informative reports of seasoned observers and trade professionals, without having attended in person. These provided me a lot to chew on, along with vivid memories of sitting through panel presentations, hiking through the aisles and corridors, and schmoozing at the booths at the Javits Center. They have added more substance to what I otherwise learn working with new business development and online publication services each day.
Books on the ground aren’t going away
The headlines are that while the cloud is increasingly host to the contents of our business data and products, books on the ground are not going away, and the publishing business is growing in new ways. Moreover, the venerable BEA appears to have weathered its own storm and is emerging in a useful form for the future. Most significantly, the reader is becoming a full partner in the business model and while licensing and subscription services will continue to grow, forms of ownership for readers will not go away.
The first thing that comes to mind scanning the BEA reports is that most commentary from the expo looks at the industry through the prism of trends in general trade. This sector is further defined in large measure by the fortunes of the “Big Six” — soon, with the Penguin-Random House merger, to become the “Big Five — the other four being HarperCollins, Hachette, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. That, despite the fact that a few thousand other publishers are also represented there, directly, or in combined exhibits.
Truth be known, most people in the industry are engaged in delivering the bulk of the rest of what seems to be now reaching several million new titles a year. The books appear on the lists of professional, educational, STM, genre fiction and the broad range of non-fiction informational, inspirational and vocational titles published by numerous independent and self publishers, including such diverse houses as McGraw Hill, Wiley, Thomas Nelson, Norton, David Godine, F+W, Hay House, Sourcebooks, O’Reilly, Dark Horse, New World, Meredith, the University Presses and the independents found at the IBPA, Perseus, IPG, PubWest and other booths, and self publishing services such as Author House, Create Space, Lulu and Vook.
So, while the Big Six may very well become the Big One in 10 or 15 years, as Mike Shatzkin predicts — and probably accurately so, more than 50% of industry sales will still be controlled by fewer than 25 major publishers in all sectors — 80% of us will likely be making a living and fulfilling our aspirations in the rest of the field.
New Technologies are driving the industry
This is what is exciting and promising about being in the industry. What is driving the business has been taken out of the hands of legacy publishers controlling the investment capital and distribution channels, and placed in the hands of an open market. This doesn’t dilute their financial or distribution dominance in the near term. But even as we see those channels of distribution in fewer hands, led by Amazon at the top — followed at greater distances by companies such as Barnes and Noble, Apple, Ingram, Baker & Taylor, Kobo and Overdrive — a counter trend is gaining increasing traction.
This is the bottom-up revolution that has made the process of publication and distribution increasingly open to self-publishers, startups, newly empowered authors and increasing numbers of book professionals who have been downsized out of their traditional career paths and are finding new business models that provide tools for publishing in this new electronic age.
Bill Gladstone, CEO of Waterside Productions, an industry colleague of mine and a mentor in the art of deal making and building business opportunity, explains this shift of energy by noting that the industry is no longer driven by publishers — ”it is driven by technology.” One need but look in the educational, scholarly and professional marketplace to see the massive global evidence of this on content management and distribution, and in general trade markets for portable device dominance in driving reader behavior and purchasing decisions.
Barriers to entry are lowered
These new technologies are not only powering firms such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Ingram, Firebrand, Overdrive and other online services, but also the cloud services with which publishers and their service providers are outsourcing as they slim down their overheads and tighten their supply chains. Ironically, the very technologies they embrace to extend their reach are also lowering the barriers to entry for competing smaller and nimbler entrepreneurs these technologies are empowering.
New names and solutions providers are cropping up regularly that are empowering all who wish to enter the lists. For example one panel at BEA included presenters from Reddit, Readmill, Kickstarter, Rapgenius and 29th Street Publishing — names unheard of in the publishing space five years ago.
Interestingly also, in talking to publishing professionals in the independent space, as well as toner and offset book printers, I found print on demand and independent book manufacturers have stabilized and are increasing their volume output.
Books on shelves are coming back
With bookseller shelf space decreasing more rapidly than demand, Michael Cader is quoted as noting that online print sales are increasing as a proportion of total book sales. At the same time, ABA reports show a resurgence of new independent bookstores. Shatzkin, in what he himself characterizes as “operating with absolutely no inside knowledge” suggests that the Big Five will be taking advantage of this shelf space demand by creating book departments in all kinds of retail stores, using vendor managed inventory techniques. It is not hard to envision independent book distributors following suit.
Reports from Book Expo tell me that attendance was of good quality for the purpose at hand, including direct sales to booksellers; also that the event continues to evolve more as a place for showing the flag, celebrating and promoting the industry’s impact in the wider marketplace, networking, deal-making and rights exchange. Reports on the second year’s “public day” — the last Saturday — suggest that the significant field of power readers in the consumer market can bring new life to Book Expo (as they have done to the ComicComs) once publishers adjust to dealing with this new form of participation.
Resurgence of the reader in the real world: books on the ground
The old sequential and territorial style of connecting with the world is being retired and replaced by the interactive social world of the future. This finds the reader as important to the process of publishing as the author and the publisher. The publisher is now one of a triumvirate rather than the sole pedestal.
“In the cloud” today reside the big databases, the software tools, the algorithms of analysis and the auto responses and alerts that power the growing global digital publishing ecology. The ebook content that is increasingly managed there is leased to us, but rarely sold. An ecology is evolving within which the reader is the ultimate financier of the system through their purchase but emerges with no tangible ownership of product or equity to pass on. This rubs against human nature and will not remain unaddressed, imho.
Below the cloud, moving steadily along is the world of print, digital content unlocked, bricks, mortar (also wood frame, stucco, aluminum and glass), and eye to eye and hand to hand contact. This is where humans encounter each other in person, brush up against, avoid or seek each other out, share a coffee or tea across a table or a beer at the bar — and can come away not only with an invigorating experience, but some form of ownership and a legacy they too can leave behind.
Well, we do our best with the tools at hand. So for me, better my virtual attendance at BEA than none at all. But I sure do miss the jumbo Hebrew National $5.95 hot dogs, with mustard and kraut.
Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.