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Digital Book World: CEOs look at e-book profits, possibilities


Four of publishing's leaders filled a massive ballroom to capacity and then some in New York City on Tuesday morning as Digital Book World kicked off in earnest. David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus; Michael Hyatt, Chairman & CEO of Thomas Nelson; Jane Friedman, formerly of HarperCollins, now CEO, Open Road Integrated Media; and Brian Napack -- who pointed out that he's president, not CEO, of Macmillan -- were interviewed by David Nussbaum, CEO of F+W Media, which is presenting Digital Book World.

The CEOs (and president) on the panel were upbeat about publishing's future. "I think the industry is vibrant, vital," Friedman said, setting the tone. Napack went even further, saying, "I'd like to think we are entering the golden age of publishing."

The reason for all this optimism, of course, are e-books. In the session immediately prior, the numbers looked positive: 10.5 million people own a dedicated e-reader; one-third of iPad owners also own a Kindle; there were close to $1 billion in e-books sales in 2010, and those sales are forecast to rise to $1.3 billion in 2011.

"Amazon did us a great favor proving that there was a market for e-books," Napack said. That was a gesture of public reconciliation: Napack's company, Macmillan, had a famous showdown with Amazon during which Amazon removed the "buy" buttons from all Macmillan titles.

But things have changed significantly as e-books' popularity has grown. Amazon once made up 95% of Macmillan's e-book sales; now, Napack says, it's closer to 60%. That change is because there is a diversity of retailers -- major e-book sales venues include Apple's iBook store, Barnes & Noble and Google.

What's interesting about this is that publishers are now moving into the role of selling to readers. Publishers have predominantly been in the business of selling books wholesale to retailers -- in other words, they're a B-to-B business. With e-books, they are moving closer to a B-to-C model; increasingly, as there are more online e-book retailers, publishers need to build new models of marketing books directly to consumers.

The CEO panel talked about the general browsing that has traditionally been part of the bookstore model. "If you drop a couple hundred thousand books in bookstores, you can sell a bunch of them," Napack said. "Simple, razor-focused Internet retail is not going to do it."

How will people find books? And are publishers ready to be the ones to connect readers to the books they want? Every year, 290,000 books are published, Napack said, and another 750,000 are self-published. Meaning that there are more than a million new books each year. Finding the right e-book may not be easy.

Can independent booksellers help? "The independent booksellers have a real chance of coming back," Friedman said. But there was some skepticism from the other panelists, as well as the others in the room.

And yet with more and more e-books on the way, and more than a billion dollars in sales coming this year, the question remains: How will readers get what they want, and how will publishers best get it to them?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: More than a thousand people listen to the DBW publishing CEOs panel, Jan. 25, 2011, in New York. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

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"How will readers get what they want, and how will publishers best get it to them?"

Readers will get what they want if publishers provide affordable, quality, diverse choices for readers. Publishers, however, will need to restructure their present business models. Dead tree book marketing is a different beast than marketing in the digital market place. Saturating limited shelf space in brick and mortar venues with volume will no longer be a dispositive factor correlated with large sales. Platform is still key. Access to platform will never be a level playing field but it will be moderated somewhat in the ebook world. Leveraging smaller markets in the digital world will be a viable and profitable alternative for the savvy publisher. Valuing and listening to discerning readers is a good place to start.

It is good to see publishers embracing this, but as a vampire writer who has a series that has been out of print for many years, I pulled my copyrights back from my publisher and went it alone. I am now on Amazon's kindle, incredibly easy to do, and am self publishing three of the six novels. The big chains have ruined publishing by focusing only on best sellers. Watching a book that has achieved critical acclaim but limited sales get pulped after just a few weeks on a mega-store shelf is heartbreaking. With e-publilshing books need not ever go out of print. I am hopeful that independent booksellers will realize there is gold in working directly with authors. I think if specialty bookstores had an online presence, and promoted titles their owners loves, they will not only survive, but thrive.

They all say this is a great period for publishing. However when you try and sell them on your book, they all say to a tee that "today people don't read books." Most publishers are scamming you one way or the other. Unless you are a big named celebrity, people don't read books. If you are a celebrity, then everyone somehow now reads books and they all want yours.

I never thought I would move to ebooks, but after I got a Nook as a gift, my opinion changed immediately. While I still have been buying traditional books, and even just had on published, I have become a huge fan of the ebook format.
I just cant figure out how the author will sign them....

As someone who started with Print-On-Demand and has slid into electronic publishing, I regard ebooks as the revenge of the self-published. Though I got my books into two bookstores, even that was hard to do for POD hard copies. Now I'm selling significant multiples of what I sold before and bypassing bookstores entirely.

You've got to have quality (no typos, clean layout, etc.) and you've got to write things people want to read and/or use. But now you can write on niche subjects (the Bastille, French 18th century cooking, the man who introduced the croissant, etc.) and find your audience directly, instead of having to convince a publisher or a bookstore owner they're out there.

All this talk about self publishing is funny. Has independent musicians/recording artists succeeded in dominating the airwaves or charts? You know, since the music industry has supposedly fallen. No, Lady Gaga records for a major music publisher/label. Millions of ordinary people or "writers" want to be stars; unfortunately most have no concept of making a product, marketing, or even good writing. Half of them don't even read books. Editors and publishers acquire and help promising authors to shape a good manuscripts as well as align marketing and media contacts (Oprah). Can an independent author or musician do this effectively on there own? No. How would they get the time or resources? It's a romantic idea; the over coming of the big bad industry that seeks to exclude talent. We live in a culture that values branding. Readers will not spend money on leisure products that haven't been backed by a major brand. Publishers will continue to weed-out all the hack writing and "wannabe" stars.


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