Crossing the Digital Chasm

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

This Thursday, UK trade publication “The Bookseller” held its annual Futurebook conference, which was well attended not by book sellers, but by publishers. Of course there were also a motley collection of authors, start-ups and consultants with agents being almost completely absent.

Related: What Did UK Publishers Learn This Week?

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Compared to earlier years there was a noticeable shift in thinking and strategy in evidence at most publishing houses. Digital is no longer that strange thing that might not catch on and it is also no longer that thing that is a small part of the business. No ebooks have gone from being treated as an “early adopter” phenomenon to being an mainstream trend, or in the language of Geoffrey Moore, “Publishers have crossed the digital chasm”.

What was noticeable at the Futurebook conference is how completely not only ebooks, but digital tools of all kinds, be it digital marketing, digital workflow and other digital tools have penetrated all departments at publishers (though still in very crude form in many instances). The digital department is in the words of Sarah Lloyd from Pan Macmillan UK now the “R&D” department. This is a rather major change to earlier years.

This is not to say that publishers are suddenly moving at Internet speed. George Walkley from Hachette UK described how coping with Excel spreadsheets (Excel!!) is still a daily nightmare in the monthly effort (forget real-time) to collate, organize and mine sales data for interesting insights (and one presumes even for humdrum royalty reports). Clearly there is still along way to go. Walkley also stated that his company now considers an understanding (if not fluency) of mark-up language one of the essential skills anybody in publishing should possess. In other words, you better not apply at Hachette UK, if you don’t not how to put books (or anything else for that matter) into browsers.

Also, Faber & Faber publisher (or CEO if you prefer) Stephen Page described the past 5 years as the “easy” years of the digital transition with a mountain still ahead. However, the “big ideas” session that he chaired did not exactly suggest a similar outlook among fellow publishers. One did get a feeling that many think they are in a “golden age” right now with plain selling and a smooth ride ahead.

Keynote speaker and author of “The Everything Store” Brad Stone described that we live in “The Age of Amazon” yet the discussion – out in the open this time during the conference and not whispered over beers in the pub after the conference – on how the industry could weaken Amazon’s dominance showed a lack of understanding of how Amazon had reached the position or what innovation might be needed to change the status quo. The most popular proposal was for the government to step in in some form or other. In many ways there is still a considerable level of denial as to what it means to live in “The Age of Amazon” and how radical change may yet lie ahead. One thing is sure, the digital chasm has been crossed and a new chasm may now lie ahead. That new chasm might be redefinition of the entire production, marketing and value chain between author and reader with only the retailer’s position looking relatively stable.


Publishing Fast and Slow

There were two interesting, but opposing notions during the “big Ideas” session of The Bookseller’s “Futurebook” conference this Thursday:

— Publish fewer, but better books
— Publish books faster

The thesis of “slower, but better” came from Jamie Bing, Managing Director at Canongate – a Scottish indie publisher, who told attendees that Canongate had reduced its output from 78 to 40 titles per year and that he would like to reduce it further to 20 titles per year, so that every book would get twice the attention and be twice as good. It is a noble ambition, but in an age of overabundance it does strike one as wishful thinking. He might possibly half his sales, too. He has a point in that there is too much published that might not need to be published, but the commercial pressures are relentless and as self-publishing ace Bella Andre put it “the best way of selling a million books is to write a new book and sell it to the 1 million readers you already have as opposed to finding 1 million and hope they discover your existing book”.

The thesis of “faster, faster, faster” came from Rebbeca Smart of English niche publisher Osprey Group, who is distributed by Random House in the United States. Rebecca showed a picture of a crude oil pipeline snaking its way endlessly to the horizon and argued that the publishing process is antiquated and far too stretched and slow. Book publishing today is based on the way books traditionally reached physical book sellers. First there is a sale conference highlighting upcoming titles, then buyers for book stores (especially at the all-important major chains) decide what to order when budgets get allocated for books to be received and showcased six months later. No wonder that it takes 12 months and more to publish a (physical) book, though almost every publisher has a case study of how they got a topical book out in 2 weeks or less. It can be done, but in the age of ebooks, it is still printed books and the traditional way of doing business that dictates how the publishing pipeline works and how a publication date for both formats is set. This is slooooow publishing.

Of course self-published authors work very differently. The moment a book has been completed – written, edited and copy proofed – it goes up for sale. Self-published authors don’t send out advance information sheets or distribute galleys and advance reader copies. They publish and then send complimentary copies post publication date to influential bloggers to encourage the all-important reviews. Also readers increasingly expect to e babel to buy a book when they hear about it. Nobody wants to wait 6 months. In this day and age everybody has forgotten about the book by then.

Also key to sales for any ebook is being showcased by the editorial team at Amazon, Apple or Kobo and they don’t decide what to feature 6 months in advance. They usually make decisions for what to feature next *week*. This is fast publishing. “Fast” has connotations of “fast food” and poor quality and of course we want writer to spend his or her time writing a good book. Writing requires focus and concentration (daily life has a myriad distractions) but should maybe not be unduly rushed. On the other hand there is no reason for publishing (as in distribution) to be slow. Fast distribution means “fresh” content. Once the editorial process has been completed (in a go, go, go fashion) – and editing, spell checking and great cover design are all absolutely essential – then it should be “click to upload” so readers can “click to buy and download” right away. We live in age of “I want it and I want it now” after all.

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6 thoughts on “Crossing the Digital Chasm

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  5. Eliza

    Great article. I love that quote from Bella Andre. It really is writing the next book that’s the best promotion. More visibility is what gets readers who already read you to buy more.

    By the way, are the 2 instances of off course on purpose? I think it should be of course instead.

    1. Andrew RhombergAndrew Rhomberg Post author

      no, I did indeed go off course in the 3 (!) instances where i used it instead of “of course”

      I can see my former English teacher wagging his finger…



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