On Monday night, the Ivy filled up once more for the last Byte the Book event of 2013. Entitled “What’s the future for publishing in the digital age?”, the theme of the night echoed that of so many events before it while it also wandered down a new avenue, that of the self-publisher’s status. With a two member panel, the event unfolded into a conversational discussion based on that one big question – do we need publishers anymore?
The panel consisted of Richard Charkin, Executive Director at Bloomsbury and recently appointed Vice President of the International Publishers Association, and novelist, Polly Courtney. The topic of the conversation revolved mainly around self-publishing and the way in which it has impacted on the industry. Polly spoke about how she feels that the publishing model that existed has changed a lot. It is her belief that publishers are more adverse to risk now and have been stung by a history of failed big print runs. It is only when they know they have a guaranteed hit novel that they will do the bigger print volumes now.
Richard disagreed with this point based on his own attendance at trade editorial meetings. Publishers are always seeking the next big thing and if they feel they have found it, they will invest. The term “nichefied” came up a few times, a term seemingly coined by Polly but which served to represent what many in publishing are now trying to say. Business has always been “nichefied” and those niches change all the time. Richard spoke about how in his experience, medical textbook sales have exceeded trade sales, making medical books desirable from a publisher point of view. He mentioned how publishers have to balance big authors out with smaller risks but they do still take risks. Polly spoke about the flexibility that self-publishing brings and how one can analyse data and act accordingly. Richard agreed that “the smaller the publisher, the more nimble they are”.
While she is pro-independent publishing, people can cut corners and do it badly and this can give self-publishers a bad name. The literary world is now awash with content but not all of it is good and digital platforms, such as Amazon, can provide a way of navigating and filtering it all. Readers no longer rely on Editors and recommended reading lists, they can now filter online and filter out books they would like to read in that way. Much like self-publishing, this seems to be a method of self-filtering. However, a call for a raise of hands in the audience saw 50% of those who attended the event confirm that they still pay heed to recommended reading lists. A good review and a book award nomination can still be the deciding factor for a sale.
Online platforms provide authors with the best means to reach their audience; this has been discussed in so many events we have attended this year. Easy access to data and the opportunity to follow a mouse-click trail is so much quicker and allows authors to tap into their readers interest and, more importantly, identify those readers in the first place.
When asked what makes a good publisher, Richard Charkin recalled a mission statement he spotted at a German publishing house many years ago that, directly translated, read “Bertelsmann will continue”. He thought it was nonsense back then but now believes that what is vital to being a great publisher is the ability to stay in the business and be able to continually pay royalties. It boils down to having excellent authors who want to stay with you and who you make the effort to understand. That is what will make sure that publishers never fade away.
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