By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From January 17, 2013
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Not that I would ever butt in on a conversation.
But here was Mike Shatzkin, the endlessly energetic chairman of Digital Book World Without End (it was that time of day), patiently explaining late Wednesday to an associate a key difference between DBW and the other major US publishing conference each year, O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (TOC).
TOC, Shatzkin was saying, issues calls for proposals of presentations from professionals in the technological and publishing space, while DBW is designed and coordinated by Shatzkin, himself, to reflect his perspective on publishing in transition.
“Mike,” I said, stepping in with my two cents. “Your conference is a point of view, your point of view.”
Shatzkin agreed with this (and was kind enough not to point out I’d butted in).
And DBW is holding forth in its final day here at the Hilton New York as the Ether goes to gas. Wednesday’s sessions were well-received, smartly paced, interestingly juxtaposed, and always worthwhile, a good start.
The Thursday sessions have been punctuated with new rounds of survey materials; Shatzkin’s much-anticipated interview of WOOL author Hugh Howey’s and his agent Kristin Nelson; and some sobering looks at the frequent divide between book discovery and point of sales.
Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch has a good accounting of the Howey conversation in DBW: Howey Gave Up Exclusivity “Because of the Hate Mail.”
Cader covers the interesting decision Howey made regarding exclusivity with Amazon, as the novellas of his series were picking up speed in the market.
Bestselling self-published author Hugh Howey addressed why he moved from Amazon’s exclusive program–KDP Select–to distribution across multiple platforms, even though it meant reduced revenues from his Amazon sales. “I did it because of the hate mail,” Howey said. “I was getting emails from people who owned other devices” and wanted to read his book.
As the two days of DBW have unfolded their sessions’ scope (we even heard DRM debated in a breakout session late Thursday), the skill of the presenters and conference organizers have come to reveal, as one longtime observer put it, that statistics at this point “start to seem to mean nothing anymore.”
Partly the natural hurly-burly of contradictory views and partly the difficulty of categorically naming the actual causes of various effects, almost any point can be brought into healthy but frustrating contention. At paidContent, Laura Hazard Owen — who moderated an interesting panel with several agents about their efforts to assist clients — has published a comprehensive look at the day’s tensions in Why online book discovery is broken (and how to fix it).
She sums up the mounting dilemma of discoverability this way:
Readers who would once have discovered a new author by browsing in a physical bookstore might never encounter that author now. (The shift to online buying presents particular difficulties for nonfiction: Twice as many works of nonfiction are sold in physical stores as online.)
It’s not a bad thing that DBW reflects Shatzkin’s point of view.
He’s backed by a large council of industry folks and by conference producer F+W Media’s hard-working staff and engaged, welcoming leadership, David Nussbaum and David Blansfield.
DBW (like Shatzkin’s highly praised, sold-out Children’s Publishing Goes Digital pre-conference program on Tuesday) is animated by the unified, considered Shatskinian viewpoint.
And this doesn’t mean that DBW is a his-way-or-the-highway affair, either. There’s debate—maybe more controlled explosion than wildfire, but debate. We heard some Wednesday in a CEOs panel; a bit in an innovation session; even something that might have been debate in a publishing-and-Hollywood panel if the participants hadn’t been more interested in showing off than getting down to business.
Nor does it mean that you won’t find a robust and superb point of view at TOC. In fact, you’ll find many POVs there. If DBW glows with the half-century of institutional memory that guides Shatzkin’s programming, TOC crackles with edgy peeks around corners and exhilarating leaps into the light of new understandings.
We’re all the beneficiaries of these two approaches. They are complementary—I urge you, if you can, to attend or at least try to follow both and to contrast and compare these energies and the POVs you encounter.
I even like the order in which these two powerful productions appear on the calendar.
This week, the fourth annual DBW is drawing a baseline right across the court of publishing’s appeal for effective ways forward. That industry-steeped POV is taking shape now, so that when the many voices of TOC come together in February, we’ll know what we’re hearing and seeing and learning and hoping.
But here is where this doing of DBW is so interesting. If DBW is that statement, that expression of a POV on the industry, the real challenge for those of us watching is to take it onboard authentically.
I wonder if that’s what we’re doing when hear so many folks grabbing onto the phrase “settling” or “settling out,” as in a suggestion here and there that ebook pricing may be soon “settling out”—or that CEOs may be be so upbeat on how the digital transition is going that they think things will soon “settle” for publishing.
This may not be the hardest truth of the POV at #DBW13. (9,383 tweets at the end of Day Two. Here’s the Epilogger event I’m running on it.)
“Settling out” may be wishful thinking. And “nobody dast blame these people,” to paraphrase Charley in Death of a Salesman. It’s been a long, exhausting digital disruption. We’d all like to see it “settle out.” Right now would be good.
But every time you hear one of our fine presenters slip in one of those “settling out” moments, I want you to ask yourself what else you’re hearing.
Shatzkin is never so simplistic, and neither are the industry players he has assembled for us this time. 120 presenters, all told. That’s a large chorus and it’s sounding pretty Greek to me.
We’ve just heard Marcus Leaver, chief of London’s Quarto Group (and formerly of Barnes & Noble’s Sterling Publishing), say this:
Less than 15 percent of our 2014 sales are going to be in bookstores.
And the other 85 percent of Quarto’s sales? Nussbaum asks him onstage.
Everywhere we can sell a book.
We’ve just heard Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, say:
If you talk to innovators, they find the whole publishing industry incredibly frustrating and resistant to innovation.
Related reading: Note the new partnership Raccah’s Sourcebooks has made with Sesame Workshop to bring Sesame Street characters to Sourcebooks’ Put Me in the Story platform.
And, as for those innovators, in parallel to Raccah’s comment, we’ve heard Speakerfile’s Peter Evans say:
Startups are terrible at understanding the tribal nature of an industry [including publishing]. Breaking bread, meeting people.
I had the honor on Wednesday of hosting the Publishing Innovations Awards Luncheon, in which we recognized winners in 13 categories of ebooks, enhanced ebooks, book apps, and transmedia projects, from the Getty Museum’s luminous The Visions of Tondal to the World Bank’s World Development Report for 2012, a free iPad app. There’s a press release with all the winners ready: Publishing Innovation Award Winners Announced: Random House, Tonto Books, Warner Bros Digital Publishing Lead Pack.
But speaking of apps, here was Forrester’s James McQuivey—author, himself, of the coming Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation—telling us that his annual DBW survey of 53 publishing CEOs reveals:
While 85 percent of publishers responding to Forrester’s survey produced apps [an average of 17 apps each], only 21 percent see revenue potential in apps.
It has been clear for some time that the expense and challenge of producing apps well—combined with a still uncertain market readiness for them—makes their viability questionable in the long term.
And yet, as Hannah Johnson reflects in her Publishing Perspectives write on the presentation, Publishing Executive Survey Shows Industry Settling into Digital, the message McQuivey seemed to want to put across was that things are “settling,” something we’d continue to hear Thursday.
Even as we convene on Sixth Avenue, Brett Sandusky nearby has posted Elephants in the room, an essay that calls on the industry to more squarely face issues including:
- “The Amazon issue” (Amazon is not represented at DBW this year);
- Independent bookstores; a need to allow digital to be digital (rather than seeing it as an e-replica of the print world);
- The agenting system (which Sandusky opines is “broken down”—I’m so grateful he didn’t write “is broke”—and to my knowledge is not a topic at DBW; and
- Self-publishing, which is, except in the Publishing Innovation Awards, largely invisible at DBW.
The self pub machine has done an amazing job painting us [traditional pubishing] as the villain and the fat-cat. Hell, Tim Ferriss based his entire book launch campaign around the idea that he was going to be materially damaged by Publishing’s (with a big P) long arm into the back alleys of all business.
Self-pub is not our whipping boy. And we need to stop playing into their portrayal of us. Get over it. People are self pubbing their books. We are not the gatekeepers and tastemakers any more. Stop automatically associating self-pub with crap, because it only plays into their game and diminishes our own industry.
The REAL pricing discussion at #dbw13 should be about the $3.50 bottles of soda in the lobby store. Boy howdy.
— Liz Scheier (@LizScheier) January 16, 2013
Our good colleagues at Digital Book World have been working to produce some quick coverage of the conference. Jeremy Greenfield and Deanna Utroske sensibly have captured some of our sessions more as question marks than as pronouncements..
An interesting moment during Wednesday’s good morning events gave us Michael D. Smith of Carnegie Melon in a session titled “Competing With Free: How Piracy Impacts Sales and Strategies to Fight It.”
The message here was mixed, and Greenfield captured some of that back and forth well in his quick write, Does Piracy Hurt Digital Content Sales? Yes.
The article is, appropriately, less hardlined than the headline suggests. Although Smith brought some excellent analysis to the stage and argued his points effectively, Greenfield takes care to turn the issue before he’s done with Hugh Howey’s avowed appreciation of piracy as an audience builder for his work.
And that’s where all of us need to live at this point, on the escalators of these conferences. Whether we think we’re going up or down, we’re still moving. And the best we can ask and expect from our conferences this season may be good questions with, at best, tentative answers.
Click to read this week’s full Writing on the Ether column at JaneFriedman.com.