Monday, 21 June 2010

Publishing in Future: Not an Oxymoron

On my way back over Atlantic airspace I am digesting lessons learned at this year's AAUP Meeting, and mapping out how I shall be using them in the coming weeks. Apart from connecting in person with some great contacts made online via Twitter (more of this later) my highlight of the meeting was, without doubt, the first half of the final plenary session: Digital Humanities is Not an Oxymoron - a provocative presentation from Alexander C. Halavais, Associate Professor of Interactive Communications at Quinnipiac University.

Halavais was an excellent choice of speaker for this audience. He is from the Academy (which most AAUP member presses exist to serve) and yet unafraid to challenge either the institution or the processes of scholarly publishing - or of scholarship itself. There can be few individuals brave enough to confess - in front of an audience of 500+ publishers - to having systematically destroyed thousands of books in his ownership (to scan them for personal use). Coming - as I do - from a professional life in the independent publishing sector I have always been somewhat mystified by a deep reverence for scholarship over profit (or at least break-even). It has always seemed to me that independent-mindedness is only truly independent if it is fiscally self-supporting. Therefore Halavais' ability to speak radically within the vernacular of his audience was illuminating to me. He used an iron fist wrapped within the most eloquent and witty of velvet gloves - and I'd recommend that anyone with an interest in the way text is used in the digitally connected academic world read the draft of his presentation available online. Unfortunately the sublimely subversive accompanying slide show is not there - but it would undoubtedly fall flat without the live narrative, which was a sequence of riffs improvised around the themes laid out in the written draft.

Halavais was full of pithy observations, one of the most striking of which was "publishing isn't about what you make - it is about what you do" (like all the best epigrams, a construction of elegant simplicity in its perception and accuracy). It is a phrase that all publishers would do well keep in mind through the turbulent times ahead of us.

It was clear from the discussions going on in and outside of sessions that for all of the angst that surrounds the future of printed books (and most particularly in this forum, printed scholarly books), many medium-sized American university press publishers are significantly ahead of their UK independent counterparts in embracing e-book formats. Three aspects of this situation struck me forcibly. Firstly, e-book distribution, particularly to libraries, brings with it actual usage statistics. And what those statistics reveal about (the lack of) usage of monographs in particular is - if not surprising - shocking. The fact that monograph publishing exists to support tenure and the structure of academic employment is an inconvenient truth that can no longer be glossed by either the Academy its associated University Presses. At some point the Academy is either going to have to stop expecting University Presses to fulfil this need, or find a more honest and transparent way of funding it. After all, publication by the for-profit sector (Wiley, T&F, Continuum, Rowman & Littlefield to name but a few) is as valid to academics for resume purposes as publication by a not-for-profit. And moreover if the likes of Wiley et al are willing to publish - it suggests that the book is meaningful enough for at least a few copies to be read within a year of publication.

Secondly, although e-books are firmly established in the academic publishing environment in the US - there seemed to be little discussion of the opportunities that this creates. The e-book is a new format largely bolted into an old business model. There was little talk of what can be learned from consumer data - and the opportunities for publishers that are created by the shortening of the supply chain to permit two-way publisher-consumer information flow.

The third (and related) striking aspect of these University Presses' relationships with e-books was that, by and large, there seemed to be an acceptance of the e-book as merely an electronic reproduction of the printed text. I heard virtually no discussion of enhanced e-books - or the unleashing of numerous possibilities for innovation that accompanies shifting text from the printed to the digital environment. And therefore no mention of the potential for creative new blended revenue streams that could be facilitated by the liberation of ideas from ink. I understand that there was a session "Designing in the E-book Era which did address some of these issues (to a packed crowd) - but I had chosen another of the concurrent sessions (thinking that this was a design and production session rather than a business strategy session). I am certainly hoping that next year's meeting in Baltimore might consider taking a look at new business models in more depth.

To revert to the discussion of and on Twitter - this meeting was undoubtedly enhanced (for those of us who tweet) by the #AAUP10 tweetstream- which provided subtext and counterpoint to the formal presentations, not to mention a great deal of good natured teasing of this year's programme organiser, the urbane, charming and seemingly ubiquitous Greg Britton, Publisher at the Getty Foundation. (Indeed the AAUP owes a great debt to Britton and his program committee colleagues for picking up from last year's deeply gloomy recession-hit Philadelphia Annual Meeting and making a huge success this year.) I've been an intermittent Tweeter over the past few months - but the experience of #AAUP10 - and of meeting up face to face with tweeps such as @KatMeyer of #followreader and O'Reilly's Tools of Change, @brianoleary of Magellan Consulting and @susanmpls - all of whom I first connected with via Twitter - has reminded me of the extraordinary global connecting power of online discussion and networking. Certainly the AAUP's use of Twitter from Salt Lake City this weekend was more edifying than that of Utah's Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, who controversially used the medium to tweet his decision to give the go-ahead to an execution by firing squad (the first execution to take place in the state for many years). One could find few more startling snapshots of the sheer diversity of preset-day American culture.

A final takeaway from this year's meeting comes from Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press (with whom I have the privilege of working in my day job). Richard made a characteristically poised and thoughtful speech when accepting this year's AAUP presidency. "We are organisations in transition," he said. "And that's not going to stop. From now on perpetual transition will become as natural as the air we breathe." Publishing is an activity that has evolved at a leisurely pace since the invention of movable type and Brown's words summarise the challenge and the opportunities we all face whether we work in the scholarly sector, or elsewhere in the publishing industry.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

On Technological Change, Publishers & Customers

On the plane to the AAUP Meeting just over a month after I attended the Book Industry Conference in London - and I am dwelling on the most challenging presentation of that last conference. In retrospect it should be no surprise that it came from someone outside the book world: Benedict Evans of Enders Analysis. Taking an overview of the impact of new technologies, he made some salutary points - most notably that our business environment is rapidly becoming dominated by international companies that are neither publishers nor retailers.

  • Google: which is not a technology company - it is an advertising business - using cash flow to build a dominant content position so that the journey is always started from Google, thus maximising the opportunity to derive advertising revenues.
  • Amazon: which pushes physical products through its logistics chain to the end consumer, thereby deriving revenues. Although Amazon has made significant investments in kindle and e-books, this is not their core business - but a way of retaining the buying relationship. (Indeed Evans suggested that the fact that there is no logistics business model in ebooks explains Amazon's "latent aggression" regarding ebooks.)
  • Apple (and other platform manufacturers): which are consumer technology companies whose strategic objective is to create products that people want to buy (and upgrade, and own the next model soonest).

Evans then drew our attention to the cash reserves of these three companies:

  • Apple: $41.7 billion cash on hand
  • Amazon: $5.6 billion cash on hand
  • Google; $26.5 billion cash on hand

He then suggested that we compare those figures with the cash reserves of any of the key book industry players. It's a sobering thought particularly when combined with the anonymous adage doing the rounds: "Google kills industries without noticing". Listening to this - and feeling chilled - made me think of Gavin Weightman's immensely readable book The Frozen Water Trade, which charts the rise and fall of the business of shipping ice from New England down the East Coast of America and on to the Caribbean; a once thriving enterprise that was completely annihilated by the advent of the domestic fridge and freezer. (How many homes do you know that still have ice-houses?)

If there is any good news it is that - none of the three dominant companies is a content generator- and their core business models lie a long way from the business of creating content. (Although it seems to me they could all clearly afford to buy content generators from out of the petty cash tin - should they decide they want to do so).

As Benedict Evans pointed out - bolting new technologies into old ways of doing things does not remain a viable model for long. Therefore now - more than ever - is time for publishers to pay close attention to their customers, and to the value that they provide to those customers. Our new techno-charged world is one where wealthy companies can change the destiny of traditional industries without setting out to do so. Systemic and structural change throughout the book industry - from the perspective of these highly capitalised companies - will be an accidental by-product of what they are doing in their own core businesses.

To remodel themselves for a world dominated by Google, Amazon and Apple publishers need to focus on their unique abilities to commission top-class content, nurture authors, and create pleasurable information and entertainment products - regardless of the customer's method of consumption - be it print, ipod, ipad, Kindle, nook, library platform, desktop, smartphone, Nintendo DS, or the next generation of far more radical interactive and virtual world technologies.

I am often asked if - employed as I am in the physical supply chain for books - I fear for the future of our business (and therefore my job). In a way I feel I am at an advantage, because it is so obvious that our business has to reconfigure itself for its medium to long-term future. The great thing about working in distribution is that it teaches you to think about books as products that customers want with the shortest possible time frame in between making that choice and receiving the book. Inhabiting the supply chain also teaches one to draw distinctions between "customers" (who may in fact be intermediaries) and the end "consumer" of the book. In that sense the mind[set of those of us in the academic and reference supply chain is way ahead of many publishers, particularly many in the mainstream "trade".

Distribution is driven by the customer's needs, and a perception of the book as a consumer item. Yes, in my private life I may also consider individual books to be desirable to own and pleasurable to read. But professionally I know that publishers have to be more aware than ever of precisely what value they add to the experience(s) of accessing content that the consumer wants - and able to deliver those experiences in multiple ways - depending upon the consumer's preference and choice.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

On International Marketing

I'm in the taxi on the way to Heathrow turning my attention to this week's AAUP Annual Meeting and in particular to structuring my thoughts for Friday's Export panel. At last year's meeting in Philadelphia I was somewhat stunned that although many American university presses were experiencing turbulent times in their traditional domestic market - barely any mention was made of the fact that the European market remained buoyant. Indeed I knew for a fact that several American scholarly presses were experiencing significant growth in export markets. I had always thought that not boasting about one's successes was a peculiarly British trait - but it seems it extends to the American scholarly publishing community too.

As I think about this year's meeting, and the panel I am participating in, I realise that I wish the title referred to "international" rather than "export". The word "export" is such an old fashioned word - heavily freighted (if you will forgive the pun) with the assumption of a "push" selling model. Which is not, I realise, what I want to talk about at all! I shall be taking a look at some of the factors that make for success in international markets and in an Internet-enabled world, that is as much about "pull" as it is about "push".

AAUP attendees would be mistaken if they think that this is a session for marketing personnel only. International success comes to organisations that adopt an international mindset as part of their overall culture. I suspect that this comes more easily to European presses for a number of reasons. We have many more centuries of international trade under our belt, we have the remnants of colonial territories or in the case of the UK the Commonwealth, and our domestic markets are comparatively small. Therefore I'm planning to take a look at some of the best European independent reference and academic publishers - to see what lessons can be drawn from them.

Last year the AAUP meeting seemed somewhat insular, downbeat and pervaded by a sense of genuine shock at the depth of the financial crisis, and the downturn in the domestic market for scholarly books. I am aware that this year some presses are feeling the knock-on effect with difficulty in agreeing budgets with their institutions, and the likelihood of deep cuts to balance budgets. It is encouraging, therefore, that this year's meeting in Salt Lake City has sold out its room allocation and looks set to be an energetic meeting. All the more reason to be taking a look at what can be learned about international strategy from the best of the financially independent sector. All press employees from directors to editors, marketeers and production managers need to be interested in the opportunities afforded them by expanding their international horizons and thinking entrepreneurially.

The good news is that university presses have huge advantages over many other publishers when it comes to finding international opportunities. The Academy is international, highly mobile, and committed to the value of the written word. In a world where intermediaries are being disenfranchised from the supply chain, and publishers are building direct two-way relationships with customers, many university press publishers have multiple opportunities for this kind of relationship building built into the structure of their institutions and wider constituencies.

"International" is a key strategic issue. Publishing iconoclast Mike Shatzkin talks a lot about "verticals" (cf. his recent post about a presentation to Harlequin). University Presses serve classic vertical markets, focused around specific interests. Vertical markets are liberated from the geographical boundaries of territorial markets. I'm hoping therefore that this year's AAUP meeting will feel less insular and be embracing a little of the modern flat earth syndrome. Export is no longer just another task for an over-worked sales or marketing department. It is an integral aspect of the overall strategic mindset that needs to permeate the whole press.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Of Eggs and Ebooks (reprise)

I have been asked several times in the past week why I stopped blogging last year. There's no simple answer, and certainly nothing succinct enough to write here. But the questions - combined with the fact that there is lots going on in the UK book industry at present - suggest that it seems a good time to pick up the reins again.

Tomorrow I fly to Salt Lake City for the 2010
AAUP Annual Meeting where much of the talk will be of ipads, kindles, nooks and other digital reading devices. (As up-to-the-moment as ever the panel I am participating in focuses on maximising export impact for print books). Therefore I thought I should begin to revive this site with a reprise of last year's eggs and e-books post.

You may recall that the Eglu and its feathered occupants arrived shortly after London Book Fair last year. The Eglu has been everything that the marketing blurb promised. Easy to clean and funky. And as predicted it has retained its value despite being used by the ladies every day for over a year for purposes ranging from egg laying to excreting - eating to sleeping. It has been left out in the freezing cold for weeks on end (see pic). Yet if I were to ebay it tomorrow I could set a reserve close to what I paid for it and be sure to sell. The girls might be a little grumpy about losing their home and it would be a poor way to repay them for the over 700 eggs and huge entertainment they have provided.

On the other hand, the Kindle arrived in January this year. It was the focus of much attention from me for a few days, and was then commandeered by the younger generation, who were more comfortable with it, and who loved being able to sit in bed late at night, finish one book, buy the next in the series and start reading it before I'd had a chance to say "lights out". All went well until after about a month - when carrying a pile of exercise books - Hannah slipped dropping the kindle on our tiled kitchen floor. Suddenly I remembered why I like print books so much. They don't provoke panic and inconsolable tears when dropped. The screen of the Kindle has been frozen ever since, and although I understand from Martin Gardner at Amazon in the UK that I could get it sorted out - somehow none of us has mustered the energy.

Meanwhile we've also acquired an iphone and an ipod touch. Since using them the Kindle doesn't seem worth reviving because the black-and-white display and lack of touch screen seem so very analogue in the face of the shiny new-world ipad. Felix - owner of the ipod touch - has discovered the app store. Thank goodness we linked his impossible-run-up-an-overdraft cash card and not my credit card to his itunes account. To cap it all last week, Trevor, my ex-business partner and ex-husband (but very much my present-friend and present-father to E, H & F) acquired not one but two ipads. Which I suspect knocks the final nail into the coffin of our Kindle.

In a recent blogpost Seth Godin proposed the
"Paperback Kindle" as a low-cost mass market information tool as well as commercial e-reader. I suspect Amazon won't give up the e-reader fight easily - but whatever their response - it is going to have to be radical. Even without a broken screen, our Kindle is no longer worth anything like what we paid for it by any measure of value.