Old London vs. New Media

Emily WilliamsBy Emily Williams, co-chair, BISG Rights Subcommittee

Spring is here, the cherry trees are blooming in New York, the Bologna Children’s Book Fair has come and gone…and the international rights community is now packing its bags for London, hoping the volcanic ash overshadowing the city to move on so their flights can be rescheduled.

The London Book Fair, which runs Monday through Wednesday next week, started out as an intimate affair.  Even 10 years ago the rights center was limited to an elite gathering of top agents and foreign publishers, packed into the cozy Olympia.  The fair has since grown into the anchor of the spring rights season, the lighter and more manageable counterweight to fall’s Frankfurt behemoth.  (In contrast, foreign attendance at BEA has become rather anemic since 2007, when London moved from early March to mid-April, leaving a scant six weeks for rights sellers to come up with a new crop of books to sell at the expo.)  Lasting only three days to Frankfurt’s five, convenient to mainland Europe, and tucked unassumingly into the tumult of a major city, LBF can feel like a throwback to the modest, more civilized days of book publishing’s past.

In the rights center, this business-as-usual vibe can be perplexing to an outsider given the disquieting economic news from many corners of the globe, not to mention rumblings of digital upheaval on this side of the Atlantic.  Nevertheless, a vital consistency reigns.  Veteran rights sellers acknowledge that deals tend to be smaller than they might have been in years past, but some have also noted signs of recovery in big territories like Italy and Germany.  Long term declines in the number of deals in places like the UK and Japan are balanced by booms in developing markets in Eastern Europe, China and South Asia.  This upswell of publishers in smaller territories has required many rights sellers in the US and UK to adjust their focus, but the experienced among them chalk it up to the normal ebb and flow of the international markets.

The ebook revolution is spreading, but slowly

The digital readership for books is just starting to take off in continental Europe – the strongest market so far is Germany, followed by Holland and France, and more distantly by other big territories like Spain and Italy.  Brazilian publishers are gearing up, but so far the Asian markets lag behind, as do the vast majority of developing markets.  This is why so much of the business transacted in the rights center in London this year will remain much the same as it’s always been: foreign publishers are still overwhelmingly interested in acquiring print rights, and sales of those rights are still an important contributor to the bottom line for agencies and publishers in the US and UK.

Some early signs of a new world order are in evidence, though, as publishers in the bigger territories are keen to nail down ebook rights for all new contracts, and some are now going into their backlist to negotiate digital riders to older books as well.  But it’s rare for anyone to pay extra for ebook rights at the moment, and even more rare for those rights to end up with anyone other than the original (print) publisher.  Meanwhile, cautious sellers are requiring that rights be revisited in 2-3 years, once the market takes shape in each country, and are careful to restrict the digital rights offered to “verbatim display rights” – straight text renditions like ePub.

A more complex conversation is beginning around the margins of the traditional fair, however.  As internet-enabled gadgets (like the iPad, yes, but also the legion of other smartphones and netbooks and upcoming tablets) multiply rapidly around the world and get better at displaying all kinds of content, publishers are starting to experiment with enhancements – and in turn to ask themselves how they are going to license these hybrid books abroad.

The challenge of transmedia

The Amanda ProjectYoung adult publishers are ahead of the curve here with a few high profile transmedia projects sold into numerous countries. Publishing Perspectives explains how this worked  for THE AMANDA PROJECT; see also Scholastic’s THE 39 CLUES and CATHY’S BOOK from Perseus. On the adult side, Apple’s sizeable user market has proven irresistible and publishers who want to develop enhanced book apps for the iPhone and iPod (and yes, now the iPad, too) have found eager partners in tech innovators like Enhanced Editions, ScrollMotion and Vook.

But the more innovative the app, the more questions it raises.  We’ll explore these questions in future articles and WEBcasts:

  • If an app is developed in collaboration, who owns the rights to what?
  • Is the author still the primary creator?
  • What pieces of the app can be translated, like text, and what has to be recreated, like audio?
  • What do you do with interactivity?
  • Do enhanced rights trespass on potentially lucrative audio and film deals?
  • And, on the scary geek edge of the spectrum: will we ever sell rights to metadata?

For now, suffice it to say most of these conversations are taking place outside of the rights center, in impromptu encounters around the margins as the traditional fair goes on with its business as usual.

In most houses, the digital innovators are still operating on a parallel plane, touching on but not fully integrated into the publishers’ core business centers.  This segregation is so complete that much of the digital crowd is liable to skip the traditional fairs altogether, gravitating instead to their own tech confabs (which are in turn often boycotted by, or unknown to, the bookish folk).  Those who do attend will be talking mostly to each other, and to the few tech developers who decide to show up at the last minute to walk the aisles.

There is no question in my mind the experimentation sparked by those encounters is all to the good, but I can’t help feeling impatient for the talk around the edges to reach deep into the heart of the rights center.  For decades publishers have reached across borders to get their authors into the hands of readers in countries from Brazil to Bulgaria, Norway to Vietnam.  Now we have a new language to master, on behalf of those same authors and readers, a common tongue of bytes and data, and the mastery needs to happen across all silos and all levels.

In the houses and at the fairs, the future won’t stay safely at the margins for long.

Emily Williams is co-chair of the BISG Rights Subcommittee and a former literary scout who currently works as an independent publishing consultant.

Interested in learning more about using transmedia storytelling and cross-media strategies? Join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.

3 thoughts on “Old London vs. New Media

  1. Alexandra

    Great article!

    Working specifically on the digital side, I’d be very interested to hear more about your data for the spread of ebooks and digital reading across Europe. What makes you put Germany ahead of other markets?
    also, do you think there is a difference in adoption based on paid versus free content?


  2. Miha Kovac

    In small European markets, there exist big problem concerning translation rights of e-books: regular royalty for e-book is around 25%, what is double more than royalty for printed books. The problem is that most of the agents don’t understand that in small markets, costs of translations are proportionally higher than in big markets: having in mind the fact that e-books are expected to be cheaper than p-books, this means that translation and royalty cost might become 50% or even more of retail price what is unacceptable for most of the publishers. In short, e-books in small markets require different royalty strategy than in big markets where no translation is required or where printruns are much bigger and translation costs proportionally smaller. Untill this changes, buying translation rights for e-books for small markets of continental Europe is rather economically insane.

  3. Emily W.

    Thanks both for reading and commenting. Miha, it’s a treat to hear from Slovenia, I appreciate your perspective and agree that some of the smaller markets may develop with different rules than the big markets – as long as publishers in the smaller markets can come to terms with the representatives of the authors they’re interested in translating. This may require an extra dose of inventiveness, or the smaller markets may just evolve at a slower pace based on local adoption of technology and reader demand for ebooks.

    Alexandra: great questions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call my information data, it’s more informal and anecdotal, based mainly on my conversations with rights sellers at agencies and publishers as well as what I can glean from my colleagues who are following these developments online. I should specify I’m talking about the trade book market, not more specialized (and often more technically advanced) areas like educational or technical publishing. There is general agreement among the rights sellers I talked to that, in the translation markets, German publishers are at the most advanced stage when it comes to both acquiring ebook rights and marketing and selling ebooks. There is a a growing customer base with access to and familiarity with different ereaders and, most importantly, a digital distribution infrastructure in place. Holland is likewise further along than most, possibly because at least one ereader device manufacturer is based there and is motivated to work with publishers to get content into the market. (Dutch publishers have also traditionally had to compete with English language editions since so many readers there are fluent in English, another compelling reason to stay ahead of the curve.) In France there are a couple of different distribution experiments competing in the market, while in Spain the major three publishers are gearing up to launch their distribution platform in June. (I’ve written more about the Spanish market here http://publishingperspectives.com/?p=13150.) In most other markets the process of getting books digitized, *with rights cleared* and available for sale as ebooks is in the early stages, though publishers in a number of territories are making a point of acquiring ebook rights in preparation for what is to come.

    In answer to your second question, my impression is that publishers in Europe are even more fearful than US publishers of ebooks devaluing the price of books and therefore there is not much in the way of free content available. (If anyone has more details to offer feel free to comment below, or correct me if I’m wrong.) The exception, as with Google Books and Project Gutenberg here, would be ongoing projects to post public domain works online for free, or in some cases self-publishing ventures where authors choose not to charge for content – but, as with the US market, I haven’t seen that this drives substantial market growth or ebook adoption. I suspect commercial publishers need to be selling and promoting popular new titles at attractive prices (also an issue in Europe) before an ebook market can really start to take off.



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