eBooks and the London Book Fair 2011
Another year, another London Book Fair. You could be forgiven for thinking that very little was different – that everyone’s still talking digital, but no one really knows what the true impact of eBooks will be. Well, that seems to be changing with a vengeance – the news that, in February of this year, eBook revenues overtook trade paperbacks in the US is a tremendous wakeup call for publishers everywhere.
The Digital Conference, the precursor to the main fair, took place on the Sunday. Although I wasn’t there, much of the Twitter comment suggested that it was the same arguments being rehashed, though Evan Schnittman (ex of Oxford University Press and now at Bloomsbury) created quite a stir by apparently announcing the enhanced eBook is dead. This was just as people were getting their previews of ePub3, next version of the digital format of choice for most eBook retailers apart from Amazon Kindle (which has its own proprietary format).
I arrived at Earl’s Court on the Monday, in plenty of time for “the great debate”, whether publishers themselves will soon be irrelevant. Representing the industry were Andrew Franklin of Profile and Richard Charkin (also ex of OUP and now at Bloomsbury, but with rather more than Evan sandwiched in-between). The new media specialists on the other side of the camp were Cory Doctorow (founder of Boing Boing) and James Bridle, an editor and technologist.
We all know the industry has to change. Publishing is about connecting the creators of the content to those who need/want to use it – how it’s done can alter, but most of the audience seemed to think there will be a place for it. In my day job I’m a publisher at Oxford University Press, to which Charkin referred a fair bit, stressing the continued need for academic publishing. Franklin was more forthright that publishers are needed more than ever as arbiters of quality. Self-publishing is all very well, he claimed, except that no one would want to actually read the results – we sort the wheat from the chaff. The debate was a little like last year’s Prime Ministerial versions, with everyone queuing up to say “I agree with James” who spoke passionately and sensibly. Charkin did conclude by saying publishers need to bring books out far more quickly, and that they must be marketed continually, not just at the time of launch. Authors everywhere would doubtless cheer those sentiments.
Around the fair, of course I made my way over to Quercus and found its two founders, Mark Smith and Wayne Davies, momentarily free of appointments – it’s always good to chat about Johnny Mackintosh with the bosses. As ever, the stand was buzzing and impressive. I also snapped Australia’s Murdoch Books, who distribute my titles down under.
Last year the Book Fair was a bit of a write-off, disrupted by the ash cloud from Iceland. This year, to all intents and purposes, the British book scene showed itself off as vibrant as ever. An added plus, on the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight, was a live linkup between the London Book Fair and the International Space Station. It was great to hear that the astronauts read while up there, and it’s now my mission to get copies of all the Johnny Mackintosh titles into their orbiting library. Though, I can’t help thinking that the ISS is one place where having a few hundred books on your eReader could provide a very considerable advantage over the printed word. Perhaps that’s the best demonstration of the need for eBooks.
Right now, the digital world is still problematic for publishers. Each reader has different requirements so needs different electronic versions (even different ISBNs). There’s also the question of rights – as Doctorow pointed out eloquently in the debate, readers have to be allowed to “own” eBooks rather than simply “rent” them. VAT (that’s sales tax to some of you) is charged at 20% on eBooks but doesn’t apply on print copies, making it hard to meet the market’s expectations. And the spectre of piracy looms large in the background. But unless the industry moves quickly, it’s very clear it will be cut out of the loop and left behind.