Its no pocalypse at Digital Book World, by Eric Hellman

mewithnewglasses.jpg“It’s like you’re taking a first step on the road to the valley of death.” The topic was ebook metadata, but the speaker’s statement could as well be applied to the Digital Book World (DBW) Conference as a whole. “Fear no ebooks” was the message of the conference, and it was a welcome message to many of the participants that I talked to. “I’m just trying to learn about ebooks” and “we’re trying to decide what to do” were phrases I heard more than once.

In contrast to O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference, which is coming to the same venue only 3 weeks later, DBW is not going to scare the publishing community with revolutionary business models or fire and brimstone sermons about the dire future of publishing. DBW was about providing a security blanket and a helpful hand to trade publishers venturing into a world full of doubt and uncertainty.
DBW Shepherd-in-Chief Mike Shatzkin did a great job developing a modestly challenging and useful program. His opening list of suggestions mirrored the topics of the executive panel. He exhorted publishers to:

1. Begin to engage with their consumers and communities.
2. Get the rights in order.
3. Don’t rely on just Amazon and Google, reach out to other markets and channels through partners such as Ingram and Overdrive.

The mood of the conference, however, was set by conference organizer Guy Gonzalez, self-styled Chief Executive Optimist. Although one attendee worried to me about pervasive complacency in the trade publishing industry, Gonzalez’s view is that publishing is an activity fundamentally essential to our culture, and that one way or another, publishers are finding ways to survive and thrive as their focus shifts from a print oriented supply chain to a digital ecosystem.

The conference’s discussion of the role of libraries in that ecosystem was emblematic of the conference as a whole. In a question for Tuesday’s executive panel, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches/Trashy Books asked Macmillan US President Brian Napack why she was unable to borrow his books from libraries. His non-answer was that Macmillan was “hard at work trying to find a business model that will work for us”, and no, libraries had not “fallen by the wayside”. After the panel, Napack exited quickly; I’m betting it was not so that he could get back to the office and work on a library strategy.

Open Road Integrated Media CEO Jane Friedman disagreed firmly with Napack’s remarks. Her goal is to have all her books in libraries, because the library consumer is not the same as the book buying consumer. Someone downloading an ebook from a library is “only one step away from being a customer.”

The follow-up to this discussion came this afternoon, in a panel that Gonzalez called the session he was most proud of. Moderated by Library Journal’s Josh Hadro, the panel included both a librarian (New York Public Library Deputy Director Christopher Platt) and big 6 vice president (Random House Director of Account Marketing Ruth Liebmann), which doesn’t happen very often.

Platt explained the basics of how ebook lending works at NYPL, explaining that NYPL did a lot of work to familiarize patrons with the mechanics of ebook lending, and he pointed out that a patron interested in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (as an example) had to be told that its publisher was unwilling to allow library lending.

Liebmann pointed out that libraries have mechanisms to reach out to readers and promote a publisher’s materials, exactly the sort of engagement missing for most trade publishers. A library book does not compete with sales, a library book IS a sale. Libraries provide a revenue stream for publishers comparable to independent book sellers, and it’s a profitable one- libraries never return books the way bookstores do.

According to George Coe, President of the Library and Education Division of book distributor Baker & Taylor, the library market constitutes a total of $1.9 billion in the US. He pointed out that libraries could reach only 2% of the market at the very most for a popular book, and it was exactly the same for ebooks. His company was doing everything it could to protect the profitability of publishers that participated in their ebook program. Libraries customers are also easy on inventory- 98% of their purchases come within 18 month of a books publication.

But it was Overdrive’s Steve Potash who delivered the most powerful argument that libraries belong in the ebook ecosystem. The visibility that libraries give to ebooks is incredibly valuable. With the millions of page views the libraries were giving to ebooks, the publishers should be paying the libraries, not the other way around, according to Potash. It’s worth noting that no other provider of ebooks in libraries has nearly as high a publisher-world profile as Overdrive. Overdrive is playing an important role in getting publishers to think about libraries as a distribution channel, and Potash’s evangelical presence on the panel played well with the audience of publishers. He even gave them homework. “Go and try it yourself!” he urged. I hope they manage to do so.

Liebmann summed up the session, and unintentionally, the conference as well, when she described her “Library Listening Tour”. By going out and meeting the customers, she learned about what they really wanted from ebooks, which was useful even if she wasn’t going to be able to make everybody’s dreams come true. Where her dreams going to come true? “I’m feeling so good at DBW, I’m thinking that maybe they will.”

Via Eric Hellman’s Go To Hellman blog. The original blog contains a nuber of photos that have been omitted here.

6 Comments on Its no pocalypse at Digital Book World, by Eric Hellman

  1. Maybe DBW should have been scaring publishers and sellers. It seems most of them are putting up circa-1930s “We can do it” posters, rolling up their sleeves and cranking up the old business machine for all it’s worth. That’s the main reason they’re struggling as much as they are, and many are heading for that “valley of death” with no hope of coming out alive.

    What publishers need to be doing is recognizing the need for a fully 21st century business model, and the willingness to restructure and really clean house to remove the 20th century deadwood.

  2. Are there any studies that show libraries to be a net positive to sales, above all for ebooks? I had a look at a paper that Overdrive put out but it was somewhat lacking in empirical data. It did have this interesting line:”OverDrive also found through a library patron survey that 43 percent of patrons would consider purchasing an eBook or audiobook if the title they sought were unavailable at their library branch”

    Bit of a stretch to spin that as a sales booster. Intuitively we know that bookstores are going to shrink drastically and their ‘browse and find’ functions shift to online networks – retailers, bookclubs, social networks. Why not with libraries? What economic rationale is there for libraries in an ebook age?

    So I’m just going to restate a post I put up elsewhere. Given the orgy of agreement at DBW and because of my contrary nature.

    From a business point of view I see nothing wrong with the decision from Macmillan. Is there actually any studies done to show that library use stimulate sales, or is at least not a net negative? Above all for digital goods?

    I’ve read some of the tweets from DBW and the arguments offered do not impress. Other than personal anecdotes there is a confusion of correlation with causation. The fact that there is some overlap of heavy book buyers that are library users does not establish what library defenders seem to think. It is the same confusion evident with some defenders of the ‘piracy is a net positive’ argument.

    Then there is Amazon’s seeming total lack of interest in library lending. The one thing Amazon does not lack is a nose for business. Perhaps they do not appear to hold the view that libraries are much good for stimulating sales? I would not hold my breath for them offering library support any time soon, see:

    choice excerpt:’ Do you feel there is any hope at all that Kindle will ever allow library books?
    The quick answer would be – No, not really. Not unless Amazon loses its head. Not unless another company starts beating it on the basis of library book support. Not unless there’s a gun put to its head.’

  3. I don’t see Amazon responding to library support either: Amazon is in the business to sell books, not to make it easier for customers to read more free books.

    And although publishers can supply books to libraries, and make a small amount off of the program… Amazon isn’t actually a publisher, not even of the books indies like me put into their store. So they couldn’t make money off of libraries if they wanted to.

    I could see Amazon pushing apps into library computer systems, allowing people to read Kindle books at the library (and maybe even setting up special library accounts that would allow free Kindle book reading within the library… and probably sprinkled with ads for other Amazon products, including the Kindle).

  4. I’ve had it up to here with various publishers eschewing a collective “OMG the business model must change! We’re in transition!”

    You don’t say? Yes, several folks have said/predicted/warned over the last four years, at the very least. If publishers have not hashed out a new business model by now, I doubt they will. Most publishers will likely slip through the broad cracks they created by ignoring the shifting trends of the book market, and then over-compensating for the blunder.

    Are consumers going to be content with the mish-moshed medley of formats, recommendations, devices, content platforms and DRM issues? I think not. Variety, while fun for awhile, quickly becomes tiresome. The mental image of a pizza chain offering 350 combinations comes to mind; it just isn’t feasible. I predict that folks will settle on two or three eBook devices to lavish money on, and the rest will simply fade into obscurity. A few devices have already gone the way of the dodo, despite high hopes for their marketability just one year ago.

  5. It shouldn’t be up to publishers to decide if libraries or anybody else for that matter can lend out the books they buy. Since when is it such a good thing to cede rights determination to publishers or any other big corporation.

    Library buys book or library buys ebook it’s all the same. They buy one they can lend one out; they buy two they can lend two out. It’s not for publishers to say “no”. It’s a question of public policy and the good of the commons.

    If publishers want to help work out the system for controlling the lending then that’s great. If not it should be done without them.

    Also, if I’m paying full price for an ebook then I expect to have the same rights I have when I buy a print book. I expect to be able to lend it out so long as it’s not in two places at once.

    Maybe it’s time for publishers to start trying to figure out how to fairly manage rights rather than simply throwing up roadblocks to everything that does not yield an immediate profit.

  6. Meredith – you keep saying what I was going to say … what a I going to do … 😉

    Well said.

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