This year’s London Book Fair and the Digital Minds Conference that preceded it were characterised for me by two related issues that recurred time and again: the importance of preserving copyright and the need for publishers to experiment and be flexible about formats, business models and sustainable pricing. Associated with the latter, in particular, were several inspired talks and presentations that demonstrated the opportunities that can be harvested from adopting an intelligent approach towards print and electronic content and therefore finding ways to enable them to complement, rather than compete with, each other.
I was particularly impressed by Martha Lane Fox, the former Internet entrepreneur recently made Chancellor of the Open University, who gave the afternoon keynote talk at the Digital Minds Conference. She said that she was ‘crazy about the Web every single day because of the power it can bring to people’s lives,’ sometimes in very complex situations. She was referring particularly to countries where strict censorship is practised, or where women have not yet achieved equality of opportunity. She said that publishers should continue to fight for basic digital skills to be introduced across all communities. “The consumer has an incredible time of it right now. It is the duty of the publisher to help the consumer on his or her journey.”
Also fascinating was the panel session at the conference entitled Hybrid and Author Publishing, which was essentially about self-publishing. Orna Ross, of the Alliance of Independent Authors, was a particularly compelling speaker, because she has both published with an eminent publisher (Penguin) and published her own works, and she said that she infinitely preferred the latter experience. Her reason? She feels that self-publishing gives her greater freedom of expression and the ability to experiment: for example, this year she has set herself the task of publishing nine short books (one a month, with some break months). She said that she ‘absolutely didn’t want her first self-published book to be taken up by a traditional publisher.’ However, she acknowledged that her writing career had been supported by the initial successes that she had gained through traditional publishing. Hugh Howey, another author who took part in this session, said that audiobooks were under-valued by authors and highly sought after by the reading public. Having spotted this, he has ensured that all of his books are available in audio format and revealed that he ‘could live off his audio sales.’ Food for thought!
Another panel session was entitled Subscription Models: Pros and Cons. It discussed the relatively new trend of selling trade e-books via subscription models. Andrew Weinstein, of Scribd, said that it had been launched as a dedicated subscription service for consumers. Subscribers pay $1 per month and publishers are paid per download. Scribd works closely with HarperCollins, which has promoted its growth by making many HarperCollins backlist titles available in e-format. Nick Perrett of HarperCollins said that there is a rapid shift taking place in publishing from what was essentially a trade-focused structure to what is now becoming a consumer structure. The best outcome for the publisher is to have multiple points at which consumers can access content. After this, their core job is to maximise the royalties that go back to authors. Good analytics are therefore vital: one of the advantages that HarperCollins has gained from working with Scribd is that it obtains a rich data set which can be used to inform both marketing and publishing decisions. There is more about Scribd here.
Among the speakers at the digital seminars that take place throughout the Fair was Rebecca McNally, Publishing Director at Bloomsbury UK, who described the genesis of Bloomsbury Spark, a born-digital imprint for Young Adults. She said that Spark is a one-of-a-kind global imprint for Young Adult literature which publishes across all fiction genres. Bloomsbury has particularly focused on the YA market because it has a burgeoning online reading and writing community. It is also less susceptible to market variation across geographical regions than, for example, picture books. It has some powerful informal advocates among the blogging community and, as a result, is migrating to digital faster than any other fiction sector. Young Adult in digital format actually has a broader constituency than it has in print.
Authors benefit from Spark because Bloomsbury is able to offer a global publishing structure accompanied by local marketing support; it has a fair e-book deal that includes a print option; the translation rights are sold for p and e formats; the list is highly selective and distinguished. Bloomsbury carries out a massive cross-promotional campaign across the Spark publications; it encourages authors to send submissions direct to the Bloomsbury website, rather than operating through agents. Rebecca cautioned would-be Spark authors to remember the target reader (so far 180 submissions out of about 3,000 have been considered ‘too porny’) and to read the submission guidelines (she estimated that 30% of submissions had been disqualified because they weren’t followed). More information about Bloomsbury Spark can be found here.
Continuing with the copyright / flexibility in publishing themes, this year’s Charles Clark lecture was delivered by Shira Perlmutter, Acting Administrator for Policy and External Affairs at the United States Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO]. Her talk set out the differences between recent legislation on copyright in the USA and Europe and indicated the areas in which each could claim to be ahead of the other. She said that, given the shared interests and concerns of both communities, close transatlantic co-operation in the future would be vital. There were three main issues to consider: to ensure that the development of international markets be allowed to continue without jeopardising copyright; that specific legal rules, although they might have to be rigid, should be embedded where possible in a more flexible framework; that more legislation should be developed to set boundaries and limits, rather than addressing specific copyright infringement issues.
After several years at Earls Court, in 2015 the London Book Fair will move back to the Olympia conference centre, which has been refurbished in its absence. Those of us who remember many earlier book fairs are quite pleased about this, as, although Olympia is harder to reach than Earls Court, it seems like an old friend. I think that most of us are also hugely grateful that an earlier plan to give the Excel Conference Centre, in East London, another chance has been rejected. Those who attended LBF 2006 there have not forgotten the almost total lack of ladies’ toilets, the absolutely total lack of anywhere decent to eat, the stands labelled back-to-front as if we’d just walked through Alice’s looking-glass, the unfortunate proximity of London Junior Fashion Week (half-naked giggling teenagers wandering by accident amongst the books) and the nightmare of the first day, when we were riding round and round on the unmanned Docklands Light Railway with no clue about when to get off the train or where we were meant to be heading when we did! Whereas next year, if I can’t be bothered to wait for the spur railway to Olympia, at least I’ll know that if I turn left out of Kensington High Street station and keep walking, eventually I’ll arrive at the exhibition centre, where there will be toilets, civilised cafés, a proper floor plan and no accidental captives!