The morning began with an alarming rumour circulating that today’s session might spill over into a dreaded 'late-nighter'. Was this the curse of Friday 13th?
The morning began with an alarming rumour circulating that today’s session might spill over into a dreaded 'late-nighter'. Was this the curse of Friday 13th?
Two hot potatoes in particular injected extra vim into the SCCR discussion today, drawing parties on either side of the copyright fence into an exchange of views that, had we been in a pub and not at WIPO, might have led to indecorous behaviour from some.
As the SCCR delegates resumed their Sisyphean effort to define the terms underpinning the long-awaited WIPO broadcast treaty this morning, the glaring paradox at the heart of the process became apparent.
WIPO Director General Francis Gurry fired the starting gun on the 32nd Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR), today, urging the participants to agree on the elusive broadcasting treaty, which has lain on the table since 1996.
The UNESCO-led World Book Capital sprang from the runaway success of World Book and Copyright Day, launched in 1996, when UNESCO nominated Madrid as the first World Book Capital, for 2001. Thereafter, UNESCO's General Conference adopted a resolution, on 2 November 2001, establishing the yearly nomination of World Book Capital.
It's glaringly obvious that the publishing industry has undergone a seismic shift in recent times, and many of us will have experienced this upheaval first-hand. We've seen unprecedented global mergers and acquisitions, and the demise of established sector stalwarts.
Without dwelling on the doom and gloom, reports suggest that from June 2014 to June 2015, 128 publishing houses went out of business in the UK. This is an increase of 58% from the previous year, and similar trends are seen the world over. In the USA, the liquidation of Borders Group in 2011 meant that top publishers were owed many millions of dollars. These are challenging times, that's for sure. (Source: Moore Stephens)
A fascinating yet understandable side-effect of this volatility has been the increasingly cautious approach of larger publishers. The global financial crash of 2007-2008 has left many industries reeling and, while recovery is ongoing, large enterprises are covering their backs and adopting a more tentative approach. Publishing has been hit by an economic crisis, the digital revolution and a massive change in consumer habits all at once. This is enough to send even the bravest business mogul running for the hills.
And yet, smaller independent publishers are still pushing boundaries and driving the industry forward with supreme innovation. Digital technology has facilitated this but, arguably, so too has the reluctance of larger publishers to take risks on authors, titles and markets.
A window of opportunity
What we've seen in recent times is major publishing firms favouring derivative content, sequels and established authors over less certain projects. More than ever before, it's about sure-fire hits and guaranteed break evens. Some commentators lament a loss of variety, claiming that treading water is not what the industry needs at this testing time. California-based literary agent, Janet Kobobel Grant, shared her thoughts in an article on this very topic in 2015:
"If that trend-starter doesn't get published, publishers will end up competing for the same authors and the same topics – the sure bets. Then, the only way an author or agent can decide which publishing house to go with is through the size of the advance. Because, suddenly, all the publishers look alike. That's part of the fallout of not taking risks with what is acquired. Because each publishing house not only will be risk averse in what it chooses to publish but also in experimenting with new marketing ideas and figuring out new sales channels. Risk aversion, once it sets in, permeates a publishing house." (Source: booksandsuch.com)
However, it could be argued that this is merely a temporary consolidation period. Adapt, survive, and move forwards thereafter. When this transition phase is over, we may see the larger publishers moving again to more interesting areas in terms of technology, products, authors and stories. By this point, niche independent publishers will have built strong lists and loyal audiences, and they'll be in a position to thrive by themselves, or attract acquisition and partnership interest from the big guys.
But how exactly are smaller publishers making such inroads? In many cases, they're going back to the constants and the unmovable philosophies. What cannot be quenched is the human thirst for great stories. That will never change, and is as true for education publishing as it is for entertainment. Independent publishing houses have a renewed focus on this and have benefited as a result. Furthermore, smaller operations can be much closer to their authors, who can help develop an effective marketing strategy for each title. I spoke to Caroline Goldsmithat Red Button Publishing about how they've benefited from the current industry landscape:
"I think it's generally easier for small publishers to take a risk on something. They can move quicker and the stakes are lower. They don't have the overheads or, in some cases, shareholders to be concerned about. I suppose the main example of this, for us, would be 'The Human Script' by Johnny Rich, which was our first book. Despite meeting with literary acclaim from people like Tom McCarthy and Ian McEwan, and having representation from a major agent, the book failed to find a publisher in the early 2000s – possibly because it is a hard book to categorize. We knew it was brilliant and knew we had to get it out there."
Unsurprisingly, structures and processes can limit a juggernaut's ability to adapt. Amid such change, publishers must change workforce skills balances, supplier contracts, production lines, sales targets and much more besides. This all takes time, and there are many difficult decisions to make along the way; redundancies, enterprise systems, marketing budgets and so on.
Digital has helped some grow, yet ushered in the downfall of others. A digital-first publishing approach requires less initial budget and less risk, and therefore greater opportunity to experiment. Undoubtedly, smaller publishers have thrived in an arena that allows them to publish work without the print-run investment.Furthermore, digital technology has enabled them to reach new audiences and promote work across social, search, online communities, and influencer blogs. Marketing online is open to all, and these publishers compete on different battlegrounds to those investing thousands on billboards and TV ads.
Larger publishers, although widely embracing digital media, were not set up to adapt immediately. For the most established publishing houses, it's a more gradual transition to adopting digital not only in their products, but in their sales and marketing. Although he disagrees with the notion that publishers are risk-averse, CEO of Simon & Schuster, Carolyn Reidy, said in a 2012 interview with Digital Book World:
"People have shrunk their lists a bit because the marketing of books is more difficult today. There's much more competition in the media. A lot of the old media we used – book reviews, television shows, etc. – there's a lot less attention placed on books (as books, not as an industry), than there was before. Digital is very complicated and it's much harder. There is no sure leverage yet in the digital world. We do ask our publishers to have a very clear idea of how they're going to publish what they purchase."
In 2014, Simon & Schuster followed HarperCollins in joining digital services Oyster [IPA note: Oyster was absorbed by Google in September 2015] and Scribd, suppliers of books to readers' digital devices for a monthly subscription fee. Macmillan struck a deal for a thousand eBooks in 2015, and other large publishers will likely follow suit. The fact that these two start-ups secured three of the big five publishing houses highlights where innovation can forge a path in the industry, and shows how technology brings opportunity to everyone. The readers are still out there, but publishers are now able to find them in new and exciting ways.
I would argue that, albeit a short-term frustration, the risk-averse approach of major publishing groups is a necessary and positive thing for the industry in the long-run. It enables publishing houses to stay afloat and opens up gaps for new and innovative publishers to make their mark. After this consolidation period, larger publishers will take note of others that are growing and push for a more agile and exciting outlook, incorporating technology more fluidly into their products and overall operations.
Publishing is a battered but resolute industry that's simultaneously grappling with the digital revolution, shifting consumer habits and a worldwide economic downturn. But publishers are sticking at it and there are plenty of forward-thinking and innovative individuals entering the sector as apprentices, graduates, executives and business owners. This is still an industry in which bright people can thrive.
Furthermore, compelling content will always be written by the myriad of great storytellers in our world; in fiction, non-fiction, education and everywhere else. This will remain a constant, as will the insatiable demand for novelty from readers. Whilst a more cautious approach may slow the global impact of unknown titles and topics, it provides an opportunity for smaller publishers to purchase incredible pieces of work, expand their audience and grow their business. In turn, this creates a more vibrant and energetic industry for future generations.
Disclaimer: the views expressed here are those of the author and their publication does not imply endorsement by the IPA
Since forever, publishers have been criticised.
It's all part of the job. Publishers are ripping off authors. Publishers are maltreating booksellers. Publishers publish tosh. Publishers don't take enough risks. Publishers spend too little on marketing. Publishers don't understand their market. Publishers are Luddites. In short, publishers are incompetent. What's more, they make obscenely large profits.
In addition, publishing is being attacked at the very core of its business. Governments attempting to control the expression of unfavourable opinion. Technology giants dismissing copyright as an obstacle to progress (or to their commercial interests). Bureaucracies tinkering in order to make intellectual property law more attuned to the digital age. Threats to academic publishing from commercial entities purporting to be charities and purloining publishers' and authors' content for their own purposes. Threats to educational publishing through new interpretations of fair use in libraries and schools and the desire of education ministers to control textbooks. Threats to general book publishers from monopolistic distributors. I could go on, but I will spare you.
The world of international publishing is gathering in London from the 9th-12th April to debate these and many other issues, at the International Publishers Congress, (sponsored by the Sharjah Book Authority, Nielsen, and CPI) organised by the PA, the London Book Fair and the IPA itself, and running into LBF. The list of speakers is formidable, including: Philip Pullman; Alaa Al Aswany; Arnaud Nourry; Elif Shafak; James Daunt; Richard Malka, lawyer at Charlie Hebdo; Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation; John Whittingdale, secretary of state for Culture, Media and Sport; and many more.
Not only is this an opportunity for publishers to sharpen up their understanding of the current state of play in our industry, it is, crucially, an opportunity for us to show that we are not what some people think we are. This is a stage to advertise that we are a flexible, forward-looking, author-supporting, investing, tax-paying, global industry.
This is the first time the Congress has been held in London since 1988. Back then in parallel with the Congress, Ernest Hecht (now OBE) produced a wonderful catalogue of events celebrating independent publishing with many great articles by the likes of Alan Bennett, Michael Foot and Donald Sinden. Much has changed since then but I couldn't help feeling that this ode to the joy of independent publishing by the inimitable Roger Straus of Farrar, Straus and Giroux still resonates:
Imagine not having to have power breakfasts,
Not having to have lunches with MBAs,
Not having to have planning conferences on a secluded island,
Not having to fake the balance sheet,
Not having to fire a literary editor who hasn't produced this season –
These are some of the joys
I know that everyone's time and money are precious but please don't miss this opportunity to show solidarity with our industry. We have delegates from right around the world. We should shout as loudly as we can for British publishing as well as for our international colleagues. The more UK publishers that sign up at www.ipacongress.com, the louder our voice is, the better we can welcome our guests and the more effective we are. The sooner you register, the better we can plan and the more we can offer.
I look forward to seeing you all, including authors, librarians, booksellers, printers, literary agents, software developers, collecting societies, wholesalers and e-tailers. Everyone in our industry is welcome but, for once, let's hear it for the publishers!
Acknowledgements: This blog post was originally written for and published by The Bookseller, which kindly gave the IPA permission to republish it here.
A book is not a product like any other. Recognising this, France has had a Fixed Book Price (FBP) law since 1981. We're not alone; FBP exists in Argentina, Austria, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, South Korea and Spain.
In countries without FBP, there's a perception that FBP is anti-competitive. The concept of price fixing tends to imply cartels, which invariably spell bad news for consumers. But with FBP, the main idea is not to prevent competition. It is rather to increase it, by creating a level playing field for all retailers, thus avoiding the dominance of a single actor.
Today, in countries without FBP, the book chain is dominated by supermarkets and Internet retailers. They can afford to instigate price wars, offering big discounts on new releases and bestsellers on the "loss leader" principle.
In France, retailers can only grant a maximum discount of 5% to consumers. Booksellers compete not on price, therefore, but in terms of the variety of books they offer, their location and the quality of their customer service.
Which system works better in practice? Let's consider three metrics:
1.Diversity of booksellers
In the UK, one third of independent bookstores have closed during the last 10 years. The US has lost half of its booksellers in the last 20 years. There are 1,900 booksellers in the US today. To put that in perspective, there are 2,500 booksellers in France, with a population five times smaller.
A strong, diverse network of independent bookstores has allowed France to maintain exceptional cultural diversity in book purchases. Booksellers' expertise and personalised advice lets readers discover new authors and breathes life into publishers' back lists.
2. Diversity of titles
Because aggressive discounting of popular new releases is impossible, France doesn't have the a big phenomenon of "best-sellerization". In 2005, the top 20 best-sellers in the book sector represented just 1.7% of the sales in value; whereas they represented 16% of the market in the UK.
In France, the book remains a non-expensive product: the average price is 11€ (the price of a cinema ticket in Paris). Between 1998 and 2008, book prices increased half as much as the consumer price index
In the UK, since 1995, prices have decreased on best-sellers, i.e. 1% of the titles. But prices have increased by over 50% for all other titles, outstripping the cost of living (up 28%) and creating a sort of two-speed market.
Fixed book price in the digital age
In 2011, France extended fixed book prices to e-books, to avoid the nascent e-book market being dominated by giant internet retailers. Those web giants are not booksellers. They want to shift bestsellers.
In countries where aggressive discounting of e-books is permitted, what happens? Through selling e-books at a loss, Amazon obtained a US market share of 90% by 2009. Last summer's Hachette dispute revealed that Amazon had a 60% market share of their e-book titles in the US and 78% share in the UK.
When you have a few dominant retailers, one dangerous consequence is their tendency to delist publishers' books either for censorship or commercial reasons. During a fight over discounts with Hachette US and Bonnier Germany, Amazon withdrew those publishers' titles from sale. Apple recently banned French-Belgian comic e-books, and a work by Denmark's largest publisher Gyldendal, due to the presence of nudity.
When a handful of retailers control markets, they can shut down reader access to ideas and culture. Fixed book price ensures that all retailers have the same access to the offer of e-books and makes it easy for new players to enter the market.
Why do we believe in Fixed Book Price?
A broad and diverse distribution chain ensures the equality of access to books. It produces affordable prices for readers. It enables exceptional cultural diversity, boosting discoverability and allowing publishers to monetise their entire catalogues.
In France we believe that "there are no books without booksellers". Haitian-Canadian author Dany Lafferière puts it another way: "If a bookseller closes, it is the heartbeat of a city that stops."
Fixed Book Price has worked wonders in France. We invite all publishers and book industry professionals to reflect on our experience. Don't wait until all the booksellers have disappeared.
Relations between publishers and librarians tend to be cast along adversarial lines. A current example is the debate over the “right to e-read”, whereby the European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations (EBLIDA) has asked the European Commission to impose on publishers the obligation to make all their e-books available to libraries, regardless of the effect on the book market.