Still True: It Only Matters That It Sells

The debate about ebooks and digital being the future IS over.

Sometimes in the whirl of debate, discussion and faux innovation that has surrounded the shift to digital, you can forget fundamental principles. Something about the tone of the discussion at the moment got me thinking about where we are and what it means.

That brought me to something I wrote just under four years ago:

Which of course is no major deal. Why on earth should publishers worry? Does it really matter if a book is sold as a paper product, as an audio CD, as a downloadable eBook or as part of a subscription based updatable online book, or indeed some combination of these?


If anything they should be jumping in this direction as quickly and rapidly as possible. They should agree a format that is cross industry and cross device. They should look for attractive price points and better reading devices. Publishers in short should be looking for ways to grab the market and sell more books

I get the sense that most publishers at least in the UK, USA, Canada and Germany and probably in France, having tasted the sweet ambrosia of digital revenue and seen the impressive growth of ebook sales, are there now.

Maybe they don’t admit it too loudly, but I’m sure most senior level publishers have looked at the numbers, and they like them.

What does that mean?
Of course the flip side of what I said four years ago is this:

You can see then book publishers face a problem like print publishers. EBooks do not attract high prices. That is to say that I think most people feel that an eBook is less valuable than a real live (dead in Jeff Jarvis’ world) paper book. If an e-reader appears that quickly changes the market and shifts content online and into digital form as rapidly as music sales have shifted, traditional publishers will be faced with enormous difficulties. Their print runs will need to slide, their high costs need to be removed and eventually some books will simply no longer be printed in books and will remain exclusively as eBooks.

Print runs sliding and high cost cutting will not be fun. In fact it will be unpleasant for pretty much everyone in the industry, but make no mistake, if the first part of the prediction is true, then the second part is inevitable. The structure of the industry MUST change if it is to adapt (that forgoes the obvious strategic issue of whether survival in a digital world IS possible for now. There’s some discussion of this over at Mike Shatzkin’s blog recently).

The debate about ebooks and digital being the future IS over. What’s going on now is the shake out of how publishers change and adapt. I get the feeling that, for many people, this will be far more painful.

Beautiful morning here in Dublin, almost makes me hold back in posting this!

Image with thanks to Flickr user Cloudsoup and CC

On Fungibility

Eoin Purcell

Why the future will bite
Today’s lesson in why the future is neither necessarily a nice place comes in the form of this nasty headline and story I spotted in The Bookseller:

A total of 11 assistant editor posts have gone at Taylor & Francis imprint Europa Publications, with the function now offshored to New Delhi.

We will see more of these headlines and they are one of the very specific reason* why I avoided the editorial side of publishing in favour of commissioning and more relationship focused aspects. It all comes down to fungibility (that link goes to a pretty decent explanation on wikipedia but if you wanted an uncritical look at what I really mean, try Friedman’s The World is Flat which does a good job of explaining some of the economics).

Why is the editorial side at risk more than the commissioning?
The basic thought process goes like this. There is no reason why an English speaking editor in India, Pakistan, China, Canada, Germany or indeed any country in the world cannot edited a work written in English. This increases the competition. Even if all things were equal that would make the market tougher for editors anyway. But all things are not equal and pay scales differ hugely across these countries making it tempting for companies to outsource their editorial efforts and achieve productivity and expense improvements.

On the commissioning side there is less chance that an English speaker in India knows much about the market conditions of the Irish or UK market, they may well have a strong idea of who the major players are but do they know them and can they reach them on the phone, have they lunched with them or met them for sales events recently? Do they understand why certain books work in a small distant market or why they don’t? Probably not and learning these things and meeting these people requires on the ground experience an expense that most people won’t engage in. This builds an artificial protection for those engaged in commissioning and relationship type activities on the ground.

Of course this logic does not always protect the commissioning editor as I know too well but announcements like the one today and my own experience within publishing shows that where a bad economy might hurt the prospects for those working in the commissioning arena, even a good economy will not protect the editorial side of the business from the competition that changing technology has enabled!

Been a good few days,

* The others being:
1) I saw that the larger share of the money in publishing rested in this area and
2) I felt much more at home with the commissioning and relationship skill-set.

The Publishing Recession

Eoin Purcell

Troubled Times
There is little point denying it, we are in the middle of some big changes in global publishing. It’s moments like this that remind you why working and living in what some might see as backwater, has its advantages. That said we are not immune to it here either.

The Irish Story
Sales have been a bit sluggish and while we need only €12 million in sales over the next three weeks to match 2007 figures (that’s a target of just over €152million sales according to Bookscan) there are only two pre-christmas weeks left and while volume is boyant, average selling price is taking a hammering in the last few weeks.

The Publishing Crunch
It is not just that many of the largest American publishers have decided to lay off staff (there are SoManyStoriesIJustDon’tKnowWhichOneToPick). Even Newspaper companies chimed in with bad news Tribune Co. went into bankruptcy and New York Times Co. announced that they would mortgage their office block to reduce debt. There is a real sense that publishing is entering some kind of crisis.

Is There Any Good News?
The New York Times pointedto the strong year that Hachette has had in the US but paired that story with the uttery depressing tale of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt which is depressing enough on its own.

So Just What IS Going On?
For perhaps the most coherent explanation of what kicked the US element of this off, read this post by moonrat over at the Editorial Ass blog:

In October, bookstores returned so many books that most publishing companies had more coming into them than going out of them. For some companies, the incoming number was more than several months’ outgoing.

Although bookstores are suffering (and how), it was the publishing houses that had to absorb the cost of this cash flow creator. This is why Impetus, a relatively new indie company without the history to survive this shock, folded. Some houses lost so much money in returns in October that profits from the entire rest of 2008 have been negated.

Where Does This Leave Us?
Publishing cautiously is the only answer I have. It’s a bad time for small publishers and mid-list authors. Bizarrely new or debut authors might just have a punt, acquiring new authors tends to be cheaper and if the work is right, marketing it can be easier too. That makes sense in a poor market, just as publishing known entities with solid histories does. I’ll add some more thoughts when I have them!

Refreshed from my Chicago trip but only defrosting now!

Travelling for your career

Eoin Purcell

Random thoughts sometimes spark notions
I have been asked to speak to the students of the NUIG Masters of Literature & Publishing again this year (I chatted with a class last year too and really enjoyed it).

It got me thinking about how committed to publishing Irish people are when they first look for jobs in the industry.

For instance, I was more than willing to move to the UK and (had I the right to) the US for work in a publishing firm. When I finished my history masters I interviewed at a number of large multinationals in the Cambridge and Oxford. I was lucky enough to be offered a job with one of them. Had it not been for the intervention of happy fate, I would probably still be working in UK or multinational firms instead of Mercier Press.

I wonder how many grads are actually willing to make such long moves? Maybe I am unfairly judging, I do know that many people travel for their careers. I get a sense however that if everyone who expressed a desire to work in publishing did work in the UK publishing industry, no English, Scots or Welsh would!

All of this is as a prelude to my real point, which is that if there are any children’s books editors who have the right to live and work in the US this may just be the best job I have seen going for a while. The money line for me:

Provide editorial support for Narnia publishing program

As a tiny resource for those who do want to travel but have no clue where to start, try these:
The Macmillan Graduate Scheme: Does what it says on the tin really. One of the largest publishers gives graduates a chance to shine (or fail rapidly, but at least you’ll know)

Inspired Selection: To my mind THE recruitment agency to deal with in the UK, especially for starter positions in publishing. I found them lovely in the past, always willing to help.

If you don’t know anything about the UK industry, The Bookseller is a source of info that you should not ignore.

Read Snowblog for a small independent publishers perspective.

Oh and check out the Guardian Jobs site too.

If you qualify, you’d be mad not to want the job, and mad not to be willing to travel for it too, that’s all I’m sayin!

PS Liking Niamh Sharkey’s blog very much indeed.

Damn, I’m not sure I like this idea

Eoin Purcell

I normally go wild for Snowbooks’ ideas
They tend to have huge potential, sound very exciting and generally seem to push things forward. Like Snowcase:

Hosting snippets of fiction for our visitors to read and comment on is one tiny way to explore the future and to muddy the boundary between self-publishing and the traditional approach. The puzzle, though, will come if someone signs up a great new author because of it. Will that prove we still have a place in the world of fiction or that pretty soon maybe we won’t?*

But this one just doesn’t excite me

Its called The PubBench (which is clever short hand for The Publishers Benchmarking Forum). There is much more here on the welcome page:

There’s a big difference between thinking you’re doing something wrong, and knowing that your challenges are the fault of the market. It doesn’t mean the challenges go away, but it does mean you’re more able to put things into perspective and maintain your confidence in your abilities. And when things are going well, you can judge whether that’s because of your genius or because of market forces.

And a little more on The Bookseller.

But why you ask

For one thing because it will cost £25 a year (€37.50 or so). I don’t oppose this because I don’t like people making money (if you knew me you’d know that would never be an issue). Rather I think it will act to upset the smooth working of the project.

If the idea is to share ideas, knowledge and experience then there will be two basic types of visitor: The Seeker of Knowledge and the Possessor of Knowledge. For the Seeker, the price is less of an issue if the available advice is quality. For the Possessor however there is simply no incentive to join and contribute. If the Possessor does not join and contribute then there will be no value for the Seeker and so they will not join.

And that is where the pricing issue becomes a problem. £25 is a huge cliff to climb from most people’s perspective. As Chris Anderson says:

The one cent barrier is very high. One cent tends to wall off viral effects. If you make something free, it is spontaneously distributed through word of mouth, and as you know, the Web is the world’s greatest word of mouth amplifier.**

Combined with the joining problem, if networking effects are truly being ruled out then all this will be is a closed talking shop which will not help break down the mystery that for some reason seems to surround publishing. It seems a far cry from what I would see as an ideal. Something more open and accessible like Slowfire (a vision that has yet to realise its full potential) would have been nice.

In any case I don’t wish to be too negative as I do admire the sentiment behind this move and I hope it succeeds for Emma.

Still vaguely underwhelmed

*[From Emma’s blog on the topic on The Bookseller]
**BEYOND THE BOOK – Giving It Away: Free Lunch or Unrealized Opportunity?
From the Copyright Clearance Center –

I do like this though: