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Futurebooks on the changing role of publishers

10 December 2012

 The Bookseller's big Futurebook conference last week gave top publishers an opportunity to lay out their stalls in terms of the future. The keynote speaker was Charlie Redmayne, CEO of Pottermore , (see this week's Comment).

The most visible trend was that publishers are dedicating themselves to getting in direct touch with readers, largely through online means. It's difficult to over-emphasise what a big turnaround this change of attitude is. In the past publishers dealt with the book end-user - the book-buyer and reader - only through the book trade. They have never thought it cost-effective to try to sell to individuals and the overhead costs of distribution straight to purchasers have been seen as a huge disincentive. Books reached customers through bookshops and other retail outlets and it was thought until quite recently that this would always be the case.

There are two reasons for this change. Digitisation, at the heart of the Futurebook conference, is changing everything, and one of the things it is changing most is how books can be delivered in ebook form, direct to an ereader within moments of the customer deciding to order them. Amazon's Kindle has been a prime mover in this and the giant retailer has been successful in fencing people in to the use of the Kindle. Ereaders and tablets are now abounding but Amazon has stolen a march on everyone by its aggressive marketing and by tying the purchase of the device in to a wide choice of ebooks. For the second year running, it looks as if a favourite Christmas present will be the Kindle, which will lead straight on to ebook purchases, although many other ereader devices are also selling well.

The other reason also owes much to Amazon. Now that the mega-retailer, the supermarkets and even the book chains are upping their demands for discount, the equation is changing. Even if it does cost a lot for a publisher to fulfil an individual order, the other question is what sort of discount the retailer would be demanding.

Of course publishers have a long way to go to make book-buyers come to their sites. Even Penguin doesn't have much of a draw in this context and other publishers have no profile with book-buyers. It's the authors who are the brands, and they always have been, so what publishers are beginning to do is to promote these authors through author websites, blogs and fan sites offering information about the backlist, as well as hot-off-the-press gossip about new books and emails to announce their arrival and solicit sales. Non-fiction is easier in a way because you can create an online community of interest but a fiction author can amount to the same thing, as the Pottermore site has shown on a major scale.

HarperCollins UK MD Simon Johnson argued: 'We really haven't started to see what digital really means for publishers. We have just used digital as a delivery channel. The product and platforms are going to change a lot. It is behoven on us to disrupt what product really is.'

Charlie Redmayne and Pan MacmillanOne of largest fiction and non-fiction book publishers in UK; includes imprints of Pan, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books MD Anthony Forbes Watson talked about their experiences of selling DRM (Digital Right Management Free) products, whilst the Publishers Association president, Little, Brown CEO Ursula Mackenzie, argued that publishers must make works more accessible but through respecting the existing copyright structure. Redmayne said that he had been "terrified" when releasing the DRM-free Harry Potter e-books, but that piracy of the books was down 25% now compared with the week before the release.