VB sees the future - agree or disagree?

We’ve been reading Victoria Barnsley’s ‘Media’s Last Diehard?’ speech and can’t quite agree on one point. In fact, it’s not that we disagree but just that we see things differently! Here are Michael and James’s views – please feel free to add your own. MICHAEL says:

Victoria Barnsley, CEO of HarperCollins UK and Founder of literary imprint Fourth Estate, recently gave a very interesting talk on how digital is impacting on publishing. She has been one of the most important and influential people in British publishing over the past 30 years and I have a great deal of respect for what she says.

However one claim in the talk seems egregious. She says " I will predict that in 10 years more than half our sales will come from digital downloads." This is a bold claim, and while I would sincerely and burningly like this to hold true I think it might be an instance of the hyping of ebooks I'm so keen to avoid. This figure might hold true for academic imprints- I would say that our sister company Palgrave would be more likely to make this figure than us- but for trade will require too much of a consumer revolution.

For half of all books to be bought in digital versions then there will have to be a wholesale and unprecedented shift in reader experience in ten years. Looking at the experience of the music industry, which is say, seven to eight years ahead of us, they now have roughly 15% of their revenue as digital. Given that many people think reading to be less immediately suitable for digital formats than books I would personally post my projections more towards this figure (15-20%). This will still represent a hugely important revenue stream for publishers and will be a major part of the business. So while I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything Victoria Barnsley says in the speech, and while I would love it to come true I don't believe we will be looking at half of total sales coming from digital.

JAMES says:

I see “in 10 years more than half our sales will come from digital downloads” as a viable prediction because I believe (today, anyway – ask me again in a week) that Barnsley’s point about “granularisation” is the key.

10 years from now, publishers and consumers will both be mining the long tail of digital book content more deeply and effectively than they do now. There will be long tails not just The Long Tail, serving each niche and sub-section of the market and shifting as interest shifts; and the corollary is that there will be profitable and over-active short heads – not just The Short Head. What will enable and sustain this granularisation? The sorts of things Barnsley mentions (and others highlight): piecemeal purchases integrated into the digital lifestyle (can one write ‘digital lifestyle’ still without an alarm going off somewhere? Probably not…) – education, academic, and entertainment content. Subscription products will push digital downloads out the server door that are not necessarily even consumed, but which will contribute to that 50% of sales in 10 years time.

Alongside the granularisation of consumption, I think we’ll see a change in content – creation, production and delivery – not to all of it, but to some. And this will probably be highly granularised too, and more responsive and ad hoc - incorporating the mainstreamification of read/write activity. Don’t you think we’re just at the beginning here, and we’ll see new forms emerge and see publishers change their business a bit and begin to sell new kinds of entertainment-by-book-concept content? I’m steaming off into predictions of my own here – sorry – but my point is that I think Victoria Barnsley’s not wrong nor is she – probably – over hyping the future of digital publishing (I might be, though!).

Personally, this talk and discussion has been timely and useful, as I need to pull together my thoughts to present at the SYP conference this month – any particularly insightful comments on this duologue will be fully credited, I promise!