As we head to FutureBook 2013, I wonder what will dominate the conversation. Amazon? Slowing e-book growth? Tablets? Start-ups?
Last week in The Bookseller I asked four FutureBook speakers what their preoccupations had been over the past 10 months. Their responses spoke of an industry confident in itself, but aware that in this digital age the ground under them is never still.
George Walkley, head of digital at Hachette UK, talked about how the sector had weathered the digital storms, with e-book sales now "business as usual". The digital publishing industry is "fundamentally the most mature, confident and successful I think it has ever been", he wrote.
Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director at Pan Macmillan, talked about how publishers have learned to live in the "new normality". She said: "Digital is part of the bloodstream of our business; it forms part of the picture but it doesn't dominate us, nor is it underestimated."
Both warned against complacency.
Chris McCrudden, head of technology and new media at Midas PR, however warned that the industry was still "ridden with angst about the digital future", with some still clinging to the idea of slowing e-book sales growth.
The author Joanna Penn talked about the rise of the hybrid author, with the career of indie writers now "more of an entrepreneurial journey".
If this all sounds incredibly positive, then it should. 2013 might not have been a spectacular year for market growth, but it was a strong year for business development, and that includes publishers, agents and authors.
However, FutureBook 2013 should also highlight the challenges ahead, and there are many.
Amazon remains the chief innovator and disruptor within the book business, and working around the Seattle giant remains troubling. For a truly healthy content industry to survive, we must have a multitude of vendors across all formats, and I see no road-path for that. Start-ups, too, justifiably complain that publishers are too corporate in their decision-making, and if that is changing, it needs to change more swiftly.
Both mobile and tablet remain unconquered territory for book publishers: but if smart devices are going to dominate consumer time, we all need to find a way of making books look like a premium product. There are still too few experiments like Virgin Books' Jamal Edwards digital series that seek to marry content with device and audience.
If authors really are building their own businesses, with or without agents, where does this leave publishers? At the moment, publishers large and small are versatile, filled with passionate advocates, and know how to get books out to the largest possible audiences, across print and digital. But to maintain this, they will need to up the pace.
As Lloyd put it: "we constantly challenge ourselves to keep up with digital trends and to engage with our readers in ways that don't turn them off". Publishers need to keep on running, but unlike authors who can pick and choose their race, they need to win the sprints, the marathon and the relays. That will be tough.
Lastly, the publishing industry is still woefully misunderstood, and by people who should know better. The past few years the courts have not been kind to publishers—from the Department of Justice, to the HathiTrust Case, to the Kirtsaeng vs John Wiley case.
Just last week Judge Denny Chin finally ruled in the Google Book Scanning trial, in a verdict that was quickly described as a slam-dunk for Google. Chin said the book scanning, dating back almost ten years, amounted to fair use because it was "highly transformative" and because the books themselves would not sell less as a result (in fact they might sell more).
The Authors Guild, which led the case after publishers settled their dispute, is planning to appeal saying that the judge's decision represented a "fundamental challenge to copyright that merits review by a higher court".
The problem for publishers—or any rights-holders—is also a fundamental one. The book industry is a rights-based business. If the laws governing those rights start to dissolve the ground beneath this business won't just be shaky, it'll disappear.
"Mature, confident, focused", were the words we took from Walkley's piece. If I was to define the mood ahead of FutureBook 2013, 'focused' would be my word of choice. See you Thursday.
PS. Look out for the new Bookseller magazine this week; a fresh new look for the years ahead, with added Porter Anderson! Copies will be available for all delegates.
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