Hachette UK chief executive Tim Hely Hutchinson's letter to authors and agents is always interesting but particularly so this year as the publishing world heads into what Tim, himself, called "uncharted territory".
For example, here is his summing up of where we in digital. "Although traditionally the UK has lagged behind the US in digital adoption, we are catching up quickly so that the 10-12% digital share of all our relevant business we saw in 2011 will more than double in 2012. The rate of growth is so fast that it is taking us into uncharted territory. It is not at all hard to foresee that fiction and narrative non-fiction sales could be 50% digital within just one or two years."
While much of the hubbub around Tim's letter has been taken up by what he says about e-book growth and marketshare ("over 20% so far in 2012 and, for fiction, at over 30%"), and Hachette's promised "completely new website architecture" (which I hope won't be as dull as it is expressed here), his comments on 'hot topics' are also worth highlighting.
On DRM for example, Hachette UK looks unlikely to switch to Pottermore-esque watermarking anytime soon. "While DRM cannot prevent file-sharing by the most determined pirates it can and does act as a brake on the casual sharing of files and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it works in the background without causing problems for anyone."
On library e-book lending, the view appears to be that libraries shouldn't. In the letter, Hely Hutchinson appears to be supporting a position expressed through Nicola Solomon, general secretary of the Society of Authors) that when library resources are scarce, libraries should "surely concentrate on delivering physical books to those least able to afford them, rather than offering rebooks to users who can afford ereaders". He adds that "this message seems to be getting through".
It is well known that a number of the big publishers are currently not letting libraries loan e-books, or at least imposing physical restraints that they refer to as friction, for example HarperCollins' 26-issue limit for each e-book. But still this seems to indicate a pretty cool shift in a direction most librarians won't like. "I hope we will arrive at a solution that is fair to all in due course, but in the meantime it is paramount that potential ebook loans to targeted groups should not become ebook giveaways to all," adds Hely Hutchinson.
On agency, it is easier to agree with Hachette's position, with Hely Hutchinson pointing out that "although the agency model is designed to be a pro-competitive one, it is counter-intuitively under challenge from USA and European competition authorities; we continue to make our case."
On self-publishing, he describes the recent rise in successful indie writers, as a "wake-up call for us, to make sure that we really do add value". He lists six things publisher are, curators, investors, editors, marketers, sales and distribution specialists, and copyright defenders.
"I hope your individual publisher is all the above and more: that you know your value to us and that we are regularly able to demonstrate our value to you; that you feel supported by your editor and others in your publishing company and that communication is open and transparent."
Taking up Tim's final comment, the publishing community urgently needs to speak to the wider world, before it goes in the same direction as music publishers in terms of popularity. It needs to talk about why agency is so important (albeit a temporary solution to a longer term problem), why copyright and piracy still matter even in the digital space, and finally why publishers are important in the link between the reader and the author.
If we are headed into uncharted territory, let's at least talk about it--and not just among ourselves.
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