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Digital Book World: Tales From the Front

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by Karla Olson, Director, Patagonia Books

Karla Olson

Digital Book World (DBW) is a fascinating juxtaposition of two business worlds, publishing and technology. These two worlds should have always been connected but have only recently aligned due to the e-book explosion.

The main message of this year’s conference—which took place March 7–9, 2016, in New York City—is that print is here to stay. I surmised from the implied exclamation points following this declaration that this was not always the position of the DBW organizers. The conference was founded in 2007 at the apex of the digital book revolution, when e-reader and e-book sales were growing by triple-digit percentages every year. The pendulum has now swung back to the middle, although digital sales are still a significant factor for publishers. My observation is that most people attending the conference couldn’t be happier with the resurgence of print.

Nonetheless, publishing has a lot to learn from the technology world, and this conference is the place to soak it all in. Publishing is traditionally a business of hunches and guesswork, so the stats, pie charts, and heat maps presented by Nielsen BookScan, Peter McCarthy of Logical Marketing, Data Guy, and others, can be mind-boggling—even intimidating—for many of us. But the reality of today’s world is that the data are available, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to use data to make a more educated guess. I was totally sucked in by the mapping presented by Nielsen. (Full disclosure: I love maps and globes of any kind!) What publisher, especially a smaller independent trying to compete with the Big Five, wouldn’t feel empowered by the ability to overlay geographic information on book sales of a certain genre (e.g., crime novels) with a list of Sherlock Holmes fan clubs in cities throughout the United States? Bingo! You’ve got a marketing plan targeting the 10 cities— including many unexpected ones—where you will most likely gain traction for your Victorian crime novel.

The other debate overheard throughout the conference was the question of how many books are actually sold every year. There are several sources for these numbers but none that tracks all book sales, from all publishers, in all formats. BookScan tracks point-of-sale data, which means primarily print books, and it is therefore skewed significantly to the Big Five, which have a bigger print presence in the stores. So what about books published by independent and self-publishers? Luckily, there’s Data Guy (yes, that’s the name he goes by), whose Author Earnings reports attempt to capture the bigger picture of publishing today. Along with best-selling independent author Hugh Howie (Wool), Data Guy has been collecting information about what authors are or should be earning. And, though Author Earnings reports and conclusions are controversial, it is inarguable that there exists a much bigger pot than what is reflected in traditional measures.

This is important for two reasons. First, all facets of book publishing need to coalesce so that the industry can more effectively compete with other forms of media. For instance, when you look at the number of books sold every year through all forms of publishing versus only through the Big Five, the numbers triple from 500,000 to 1.5 million. Doesn’t this indicate that, despite posts, tweets, and pins, reading is alive and well, and is an information and entertainment option for many?

Second, looking specifically at author earnings leads to an important debate about the value of content. When we regularly pay $15 for two hours of big-screen entertainment, why are we letting Amazon pressure us to lower the price of our e-books so that consumers expect them to cost only $2.99? Yes, there’s no PPB or inventory with an e-book, but what about all the costs of development, of making sure that the book is offering the best reading experience possible? Shouldn’t the author’s time spent writing and the publisher’s costs of development be part of the equation? I’m not sure of the answer, but I certainly welcome the debate.

Which brings us to the dominance of Amazon in our world. As expected, there was significant discussion about whether or not Amazon is a monopoly or a monopsony, and how we, as independent publishers who have undisputedly benefited from the emergence of the bookselling giant, make sure that the value of our work is fair and preserved. It is a multifaceted issue, from e-book pricing to sales tax, copyright to terms negotiation. What was highlighted for me was the power of organizing and community. Being part of an organization like IBPA is an essential step to make sure that the unique values and concerns of independent publishers are represented in what are sure to be ongoing debates.

Karla Olson is the director of Patagonia Books, which publishes books as a mission outreach within the sports clothing company, Patagonia, Inc. Olson is also the president of Publishers and Writers of San Diego and Publishers and Writers of Orange County, and founder of Read Local, a marketing coalition for authors. She has been in the publishing industry for more than 30 years and is the owner of BookStudio, a publishing consultancy. This was her first time attending DBW conference— but probably won’t be her last.

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