Optimism on the wane at Digital Book World as Amazon animus grows

The book business is “like the wild west. Everyone wants to be everything", Hyperion publisher Ellen Archer said to 1500-plus attending Digital Book World in New York on Tuesday.  Where is separation between author, publisher, agent, retailer these days?

Proof was everywhere in the air: Apple’s latest authoring and textbook moves announced a few days ago, not to mention Amazon choosing to confirm in a press release its much bruited-about “new" print publishing/distribution arrangement with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on the very afternoon of DBW’s first full day. HMH’s newly-named New Harvest imprint will publish “p" versions of the adult titles Larry Kirshbaum will generate for Amazon in New York.

Anti-Amazon animus was palpable among many attendees. It has gotten so bad that publishers, ever fearful about the long shadow and big ears stretching from Seattle, nevertheless grumbled loud enough for National Public Radio to air an unusually pointed piece on one of its major news programs on the eve of DBW, headlined “Publishers and Booksellers See a ‘Predatory’ Amazon".

Early DBW take-homes came from resident soothsayer Mike Shatzkin in his prognostications, and Forrester Research’s James McQuivey in his statistics.

On pricing, Shatzkin said, “constant monitoring is called for and publishers need to be at least as adventurous in pricing as authors are on their own". One of the biggest challenges, everybody knows, will be to keep display and sales alive in bricks and mortar, yet ironically, publishers are “shrinking their sales forces just when they need to be on the ground finding new accounts" – in the widest bricks and mortar sense – “to replace the ones that are disappearing".

Shatzkin was one of many first-day speakers to assert that it’s becoming harder and harder for publishers to avoid direct sales: customers are “the coin of the realm."  On another front, “every book" needs to have effort expended on metadata enhancement, and quality control still needs to be better on many e-books, even “plain-vanilla" ones.

A moment that grabbed everybody’s attention was when Shatzkin asked if audio will become part of an enhanced ebook or a regular ebook instead of a separate product altogether. He advised publishers to get themselves into the events business, and - referring to Random UK’s recent move to break short stories out of anthologies for individual sale - asked why that isn’t being done universally. He summed up the current situation this way: “there were definitely easier times to be in publishing, but never more exciting or stimulating times".

Forrester’s McQuivey definitely spoke to the times not being so easy. His latest survey of 74 executives tapped from the biggest, many mid-tier and some smaller publishers revealed that “optimism is waning."

Last year 89% of executives were optimistic about the digital transformation; in the new survey that figure decreased to 82%.  In the previous survey 74% felt readers would be better off; the current figure is 61%. Last year 66% felt more people will be reading books; the equivalent this year is 47%. And whereas last year 51% felt their companies would be stronger, only 28% do now.

Currently 25 million people in the US own an e-reader; 34 million have a tablet; and at least eight million homes have two tablets. Within publishing companies, organizing for the digital transformation is “coming along nicely" - 75% have an executive level person responsible for digital; 63% report digital skills are integrated into  departments rather than centralized; 69% expect to increase digital staffing this year. Yet McQuivey pointed out that publishers’ “love affair with apps is over:" 51% surveyed said that the cost is too high and just 15% believe that apps represent a significant revenue opportunity.

Although 54% of publishers predict that print sales will decrease in 2012, only 5% believe that decrease will be “significant". E-book sales are predicted to increase 130% overall this year and Amazon is expected to take about 41% of them. To succeed in the future, “publishers must have direct consumer relationships" McQuivey said, echoing Shatzkin’s earlier assertion.

If it all looks too hard and “waning optimism" is getting you down, cheer up: it’s “not despair, but pragmatic realism," McQuivey said with a smile on his face.

More from DBW is coming in the next few days.


The correlate between optimism and size of firm

Thad_McIlroy's picture

James McQuivey is smart and insightful and knows publishing well. But I think that he'd be the first to admit the limitations of his data. He reported that his survey covered "publishing executives whose companies together earn 74% of all US trade publishing revenues." Which is to say the big New York publishers who are facing the largest disruption. Out here in SmallPublisherVille the skies are blue and we're looking at a record harvest!

Just a reminder...

Hating Amazon is not a strategy.

Not my line, someone else's - and although "hating Amazon" can be comforting, pragmatic realism has to embrace new strategies and mindsets.  

Bookstores were weighed down with leases and undepreciated capital spend; publishers control copyrights, a much more valuable commodity in the new world.  As ever, Shatzkin is saying most of the right things more coherently than the rest of us!

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