The European Digital Avalanche
Last week at the EDITECH conference in Milan I witnessed the onset of the ebook avalanche in Italy. Only six months earlier Italian publishers were talking about the emerging global ebook world as a rather American phenomenon that European publishers could comfortably ignore to brood on the right digital strategy a little longer. Not now. The international speakers found a keen audience taking in experiences from other markets and exploring the possibilities of international partnerships in every possible way.
After I left my Dutch publishing job at De Bezige Bij to join Kobo, a Canadian start-up that has become the world’s most innovative and leading ereading service after only 18 months, I’ve watched this shift happening in several non-English European territories — in the past six months, that is. As a literary publisher I had become increasingly aware that the European publishing industry was locked into a paradigm that shaped the industry in the past and that now was being used to protect it. European publishers are, at heart, cultural entrepreneurs that evolved from printers to editors to publishers to marketers since Christoffel Plantijn started his printing factory in Antwerp in the sixteenth century. (If you want to understand what European publishing is going through, I urge you to visit the Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp – it’s all there, and it has all happened before.)
Publishers have always been salesmen, but the awareness that publishers are also curators of a cultural heritage has been key to how many businesses were run successfully. There is nothing romantic about this, nor is it limited to indies; European publishing simply predates literacy as an entertainment industry.
This background serves for two observations I want to make. The first is that European publishing has now become part of a global process of change that is action driven and forward looking. While European publishers are trying to fit the new developments into a historical narrative, the context is replaced by the exponential growth curve of the digital era. No time for narrative thinking, the only way forward is developing an action strategy and go for it. It reminds me of the metaphor for cultural mutation the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco uses in his essay “The New Barbarians”: the image of the first fish feeling the itch of lungs developing but landing on the shore a little too soon to be able to fully breathe.
The second observation is that global ebook retailers, all from North America, won’t get anywhere with the typical North American pragmatic get-the-deal approach and must develop a strategy that has the long-term interest of the European publishing community at its heart. European publishers saw how the battle was fought in the US over the past decade, and we didn’t like the outcome.
From the US experience, we learned that there is only one moment in time when these new partnerships can be forged: before signing. My boss, Kobo EVP Michael Tamblyn, pointed out in Milan that we need to build partnerships on trust, not on contracts only. Publishers are rightly cautiously considering to whom they will entrust their authors and their readers. Global ebook retailers will have to earn that privilege. If the speed at which the biggest retailers will get market share in the initial phase is contract driven by the laws of scale, the long-term success will without doubt depend on who is able to share a sense of curatorship with publishers in a truly collaborative partnership.
When I resigned as a publisher, a friend and colleague reminded me of how I was still trying to acquire a hot title at four o’clock in the morning in the Frankfurter Hof during my first book fair. “Will you not miss that addictive passion you always had as an editor?” Many publishing friends wondered this too.
Six months later I have been able to test my optimism about the digital book era, and I like what I’ve seen. I believe our reading culture will grow to unprecedented heights and our generation will find out how to unfold those lungs and breathe the very fresh air of ebooks. An ereading service like Kobo shares with publishers a passion to bring authors and their stories to readers, and aligns its dazzling technology and analytics to developing a new reading culture in a way that will radically change book reading and selling forever. European publishers for the first time in history will have the tools and the infrastructure and the reach to provide a powerful answer to the dominating power of the American publishing industry they’ve complained so long about. The much discussed curatorship is only beginning, and this makes the latest avalanche in European publishing into such a thrilling challenge.
Pieter Swinkels works at Kobo as Director of Publishing and Industry Relations EU and has over ten years experience in the international publishing industry. Before joining Kobo he worked as Publisher at De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam.