BEA Digital Evolution or Revolution?

The Book Expo of America’s CEO roundtable discussion hosted by Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Beast Tina Brown was held to a standing room only crowd wanting some answers from a panel consisting of who’s who in publishing. The panel included Brian Murray of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster, John Sargent of Macmillan, and David Steinberger of Perseus Books Group. Ms. Brown’s opening remarks likened the current digital explosion to the industrial revolution. She stated, “The publishing industry is experiencing volcanic changes calling for major re-thinking and restructuring. Publishers today must reinvent the wheel while still publishing great books. They are faced with fewer and fewer places to talk about and promote books because of the collapse of newspapers.” How’s that for a cataclysmic view?

The opening salvo in this digital discussion was aimed at Amazon and their strong arm tactics regarding e-book pricing. Amazon consumers can generally download an e-book for roughly $9.95, but the cost to produce an e-book is the same as manufacturing a hardcover version.  As the largest book retailer on-line, off-line or anywhere, publishers feel they have been backed into a corner and going against their biggest sales outlet could affect their bottom line.

“The danger is having a monopoly,” said Perseus’ Steinberger. However, Brian Murray didn’t see this as a huge concern because e-books comprise only 1-2% of their revenue, “we’ll take a closer once the numbers hit 10-20%,” he offered.

Statistically Amazon owns the market for e-readers and therefore has the biggest e-book revenue share.  My problem with Amazon’s e-reader, The Kindle, is its inability to accept all formats. Once you buy a Kindle at $359.00 you can only download books from Amazon. And legally you can’t share that book with anyone else. At some point e-readers are going to have to be universal, wireless and affordable. I agreed with John Sargent when he said, “The true explosion will happen when you can download all books on any wireless device.”

The panel’s address on the issue of marketing and promotion in the digital environment left me scratching my head and questioning what I’d heard. Carolyn Reidy acknowledged they now incorporate their digital departments in all current promotion and marketing efforts where before they were considered a separate department. In an effort to combine traditional marketing with digital marketing, Simon & Schuster will email promo to their database of retailers and consumers as well as using the author’s data base.  In addition, the authors create videos for YouTube, set up social media accounts and send advance reader copies to niche book bloggers. Based on Ms. Reidy’s description, it seems no different than what most authors have been doing for many years, the burden is on the author to promote, create a ‘buzz’, and ultimately sell their book.  Unless you’re an A List author with several best sellers under your belt, it doesn’t appear there will be a car waiting for you at the airport to take you to the next book signing. There won’t be a publicity director booking you on the Today Show. And there’s isn’t an assistant creating your Facebook page, setting up your Twitter account, or producing a video for your new release. Sorry authors, over to you.

John Sargent emphatically stated that viral marketing doesn’t sell more books, citing an example based on a book trailer they produced, “We had the #1 video on You Tube and only sold an additional 200 books from the video. The key to selling books is through word of mouth or Oprah.” This panel of movers and shakers all agree that national publicity and front store displays is the only route to a best seller.

In the end, this panel of publishing giants didn’t feel that the digital push would really change how they sell and market books. But the moderator, Tina Brown insisted that the publishing industry was in danger of becoming like the music industry. We all know what happened when Napster and iTunes came along – the music industry most definitely had to reinvent themselves – and they did. And music is still selling, for the same reason books will continue to sell. The artist reaches out to people and takes them to places they’ve never been. When we turn the last page on the digital age, writers will still be writing because they have a story to tell, and readers will still be reading, in whatever format, because they want to be told a story.

So is it evolution or revolution?  Publishing consultant Seth Gershel put it simply, “Revolution is what happens overnight with one big change. This is a digital evolution, where things change and continue to grow and evolve. Technology doesn’t drive the content; the content drives the use of technology. Publishers will benefit from the tools.”