Writers, Readers, Publishers: Present Tense, Future Bold #2

Last night’s meeting for Present Tense, Future Bold featured guest speak Rick Joyce, the chief marketing officer of Perseus Books. Perseus is a publisher and a printer/distributor for over 300 indie publishers.

According to Rick the digital transition happened distinctly in each industry (music, books, etc.), and was not monolithic. But, the future of print books may not be as dire as some in the publishing industry may believe. According to Rick Joyce, although record stores are no longer around, CDs still comprise 40% of the music business. Most CDs are bought in stores such as Walmart and Target by 50-year-olds.

“What we think we know is heavily shaped by what the media reports,” Rick said. (And they don’t always cover everything). For example, self-publishing became a much bigger deal last year, mainly because media outlets such as The New York Times reported enthusiastically about it. However, Rick said that while there were 11 self-published authors on the bestseller lists last year, there were thousands of other self-publishers.

So the big question of the night was, what will publishing be like in 2020?

The good news is, there will probably still be print books, just like there are still CDs now. Why? According to Rick Joyce, books are treasured objects, they make good gifts, lots of people have large collections they’re not willing to give up, and there’s a generational preference for them. We can also take lessons from the music business. For example, people like to listen to music in their cars, but cars were late to bluetooth and other technologies that allowed easy mp3 listening.

No matter what, the work/content will always be important. Publishers should release books in all formats, not only print and ebook, but also other formats that are not talked about as often, such as Braille, large print, and audio.

Everyone is free to be their own publisher these days. This means brands, such as NBC, authors, agents, channels, such as Epicurious, Politico, and ProPublica, and anyone in general can create their own books.

Consumers want to get closer to the talent, as evidenced with popular celebrity Twitter handles, celebrity books, etc. This means the talent has more power, and books are more like the music and TV business. Some ways to utilize this knowledge is to offer signed books, fan clubs, exclusive content, early access, and author events–which many publishers are doing already.

With the birth of digital comes the death of old discovery vehicles, such as mall bookstores, the Sunday newspaper book review section (there used to be 400, now there are 14). One problem with losing physical bookstores is browsing. Digital has not yet replaced the impulse buys people make from browsing physical bookstores. So the trick is the figure out how to convert an impulse purchase.

On the bright side, one-click buys in the digital space makes it easier to get publicity. Word-of-mouth is easier to spread, with so many people on Facebook and Twitter. The Internet also changes the way people discover books. There are links, SEO (which is more important for non-fiction, since they are more functional), and media monitoring to see what works where.

Reading has also become more social. People learn about stories via Facebook, read chapter excerpts on Twitter, and with new websites they can annotate in their ebooks, find books from social recommendation engines, and participate in clubs and loyalty programs.

Just like viral videos, books can sometimes have turbo-charged breakouts. One great example is for Go the F to Sleep, which within six days of one publicity event became the number one book on Amazon (it took two days to get online, then four days to reach the top). Prior to this event, where the author read the book aloud, it was not on sale, it had no reviews, and no other marketing. Obviously, the publisher had to move up its timeline, which is something other publishers may have to get used to in the future.

Business models are changing. New models include lending, rental, subscription (more for serial publisher of genres like romance and mystery), freemium, flash sales (like Gilt), bundling ebooks with devices, ad-supported ebooks (more for non-fiction), special editions, and free books with events.

One thing to worry about, however, is undervaluing content. Publishers don’t want to train people to think that content is cheap, especially since so much work is involved in writing, editing, and marketing.

On another note, even though self-publishing is getting bigger, many authors still need help with social media and marketing their book. Sometimes they need help building websites, and sometimes they need content beyond their book.

Digital has lowered the barriers to entry for publishing. For one thing, the size of a publisher doesn’t matter anymore. Although winning prizes for books and having social media breakouts help sales, again, anyone can be a publisher. Rick Joyce thinks there will be an explosion of small publishers, who are not necessarily in the business for the money. Today, there is more reading and writing than ever before, especially with social media. “In a weird way, Facebook users are writers,” Joyce said (referring to status updates).

Again, quality matters. Publishers are thinking of ways to turn movies into books, TV into books, and vice-versa. A strong backlist can be enhanced, tweaked, rediscovered, or turned to a new medium. One great example is Friday Night Lights.

Joyce also predicts that the future will be more like a Lego model. In the past publishing was like Henry Ford’s model, where print goes to retail. But now the question is how to configure with partners.

According to Joyce, there are still some unresolved questions that may take a few years to answer:

1. Global v. multinational (Will ebooks be like phones? All in the same format? Or will it be more like the book business where each country is different in terms of reading and discoverability? Ex: Germany is so concerned about piracy that all ebooks are held in a central repository until someone buys it. Other countries do not allow discounts for books, and some are afraid of Amazon so they have different laws and efforts against the company).

2. Local v. cloud (It’s a question of interoperability, or the ability to read ebooks in different formats. One argument is there is not much piracy in books, and DRM only gives the advantage to Amazon, since it prevents people from reading their books on anything but Kindle products.)

3. Shift from print to digital (Will this be additive, substitute, or destructive in value? What will pricing be like? The ebook business is more profitable than print, primarily because it’s more efficient and people can’t return them.)

Other related facts:

  • Most of the world is 2.5-3 years behind the U.S. in ebooks. Japan is ahead in terms of cellphone ebooks, but is behind everywhere else.
  • Some cultures are more reading intense than others (such as Germany and Scandinavia)
  • There are more English speakers in India than in Europe. For that reason, India has a broken market, but it’s good if you’re selling business books.
  • Publishers are agnostic about format, so long as you read their books
  • “There’s no substitute for taking the time to think.”
  • Many people just want to get discovered (look at the number of free or 99 cent books for sale on Amazon)
  • Because of the world we live in, you can building your own platform and not be as dependent on reviews and publishers
  • Sometimes you have to give to get (give away samples or the book for free for a time). Rick Joyce said, “The idea is the more time you spend with it, the more likely you are to buy it.”
  • “No one buys a book because of the press.” In other words, no one cares who publishes what.
  • “People care about content.”
  • It’s easier to get your content out in the world–the technical and economic barriers are almost zero.
  • For literary fiction, browsing is still important and books are not about their plots. Fiction is more personal, so it’s helpful for authors to put videos of themselves talking about the book on their sites or getting on NPR.
  • There is not one book publishing business (companies that sell literary, travel food, cooking, and mystery, for example, run very differently).
  • You should only create enhanced ebooks if there’s an organic need and it can be interactive, not just have bonus features. Create enhanced ebooks because you have to (the content dictates the form, and less is more) not because you can.
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