Book Business Twists In To New Shapes To Face Its First Digital Challenge

The book publishing sector has woken up to the revolution that is now beginning to quickly redefine it – and is falling over itself to stake out unfamiliar new digital credentials.

At the inaugural World E-Reading Congress in London this week, executives, many of whom have been commissioning apps that can better be described as “communities” or “toys” than “page-turners” – lined up to make a voguish boast: they no longer know the answer to the question: “What is a book?” (This fashionable self-deprecation must be the book industry’s version of media execs who proclaim at digital conferences: “We don’t have any answers.”)

The print book market is in all kinds of turmoil at the moment,” Faber & Faber’s digital publishing head Henry Volans told delegates.

When it commissioned developer Agant to make an app for its The Dosac Files book, Faber ended with an iPhone app that was more a 24/7 user experience than a conventional narrative. “The irony of this is, an app created by a book publisher just got nomination for a TV Bafta,” said Agant’s CEO Dave Addey.

To ensure they have a place in the future, as well as to take advantage of all its clear opportunities, publishers are soul-searching and forcing themselves in to a wholesale reassessment of several thousand years of western civilisation.

The printed book is a technical accident,” said Palgrave Macmillan digital director Alison Jones. “For many centuries, it was the most convenient way of capturing and communicating information. But the industry has built itself around that technical accident. It’s difficult to extricate ourself from that.”

That’s why publishers are not merely repurposing their prose in digital text but are also telling stories in new ways, such as with Penguin’s MyFry, the iOS version of Stephen Fry’s autobiography, which the sector regards as a benchmark for being navigable by a kind of wheel UI, in a non-linear fashion, rather than through indexed pages.

The entire publishing industry is going down the drain,” publishers at World E-Reading Congress were told by an executive from Siemens, in a sponsored address designed to pitch the German company’s new tablet publishing software service, which outsources production to India.

They don’t necessarily believe that, but publishers appeared keen to learn from the music industry, which was amongst the first analogue content sectors to be impacted by digital and which was later thrown a lifeline, perhaps at some cost, by Apple.

Congress invited a Universal Music Group executive, who told it how it counteracts piracy and how: “We’re no longer looking to just licence proxies for the physical product – we’re looking for new models.”

But the book sector is some years behind the music business, which is now more inclined toward creating legal customer services than chasing freeloaders. In a keynote about piracy, Macmillan’s Jones lambasted adherents to Stewart Brand’s 1984 maxim “Information wants to be free” and said of the “pirate” threat: “Once you’re up against Johnny Depp in a bandana, you’ve lost the war.”

For all publishers’ fears that piracy will fillet their industry as it did music, publishers have no idea of the scale of the supposed threat. Though record labels say 95 percent of global downloads are illegal, three publishing execs I asked to quantify book piracy said they had absolutely no idea. “I do know our monthly takedown figures, and it’s high,” Macmillan’s Jones told me, without quantifying.

One thing is clear – some publishers fear entirely different breeds of animal will eat their lunch. “We’re facing stiff competition from individual self-publishers and potentially giant technology companies with deep pockets,” HarperCollins’ international CEO Victoria Barnsley warned delegates, noting Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) recently launched a new publishing imprint for romance novels.

“We must be very wary of any of the tech companies becoming too dominant, We must recognise the misalignment between us and some of the technology companies. Some of them would happily see content commoditised and, as we’ve seen with Google (NSDQ: GOOG), they can have a casual attitude to copyright.”

Barnsley’s sleepless nights – in which she ponders the “threatening question” of “who owns the platform” – even extend to a player which has no stated interest in books. “There is another powerful agent out there,” she said, “- Facebook. They haven’t yet played their hand in this poker game but, if they want in, they could be formidable.”

This may be paranoia, but it’s indicative of how sensitive publishers are feeling to the “threat” from Silicon Valley. Right now, it’s the current crop of digital book challengers which are causing palpitations familiar to other content industries, but ones the book sector is recognising for the first time – the exchange of analogue dollars for digital dimes…

“Can publishers replace their lost revenues from physical through digital sales?,” Barnsley’s asked. “The answer is probably ‘no’, unless they can significantly grow volumes.

“Signs are, consumers expect e-books to be priced considerably lower than physical books. In the current e-book Top 50 on Kindle, there are only five titles priced at £5 or above.”

Publishers and retailers alike are trying to build volume and compete with tech competitors by building their own stores and discovery channels.

Asked if it should emulate Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS), which has come out with its own Nook e-reader, Waterstones’ e-commerce manager Alex Ingrams said: “It’s certainly interesting. Waterstones is looking for a new owner – there is a clear candidate – I would hope that new owner would invest in a similar way. There are a number of plans we can advance quite quickly that would move us down a similar line.”

Several UK publishers have also teamed for a Bookish-style social discovery and retail site, aNobii. “We happen to be shareholders but it’s designed for everybody to be embraced, for everybody, totally open,” said Random House deputy CEO Ian Hudson, in one of several signs of early cooperation in the medium’s shared interest – perhaps uniting against a common foe.

But the question many publishers are coming back to is – should they, like the music business, now move down the Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) route of giving customers unlimited rental access for a set price?

“We need to anticipate and create new business models that give consumers access when they want it,” Barnsley said. “‘I’m thinking here of subscription and lending models.”