Hype and Hoping

eBooks are everywhere. They romped gleefully through the London Book Fair, dominating all in their unstoppable zeitgeisty path. The Bookseller cannot stop writing about digital issues. Our dear broadsheets are even picking up on the story, reporting about the rise of digital here, here and here. Publishers, services providers, manufacturers, gurus, consultancies, warehouses, distributors, information vendors and, yes, readers pile joyfully into the gleaming future of the digital space. A utopian world of digital plenty is upon us. Undervalued for years, it seems that digital publishing is finding its place in the sun. Which is why I am worried.

Things are good- too good. Booktwo highlighted this recently by linking to two articles written by Times columnist and author Ben Macintyre. The first is a breathless panegyric to the aforementioned digital future dating from 1999. The second is a retraction, a statement that "ebooks will never be our friends", written in February of this year. In fairness to Macintyre the piece is much more balanced than the title suggests- he prophesies that people will read both on screens and in print.

Macintyre, it seems, learnt his lesson the hard way. That there is a lesson to be learnt here might be disputed: for many the digital revolution is assured, as certain as it is doomed for those who believe it will collapse. Amid the furore I think listening to Macintyre might help all of those, like myself, who have a vested interest in seeing digital publishing work.

All the noise surrounding eBooks might be detrimental if, for example, take up is slower than anticipated (and what is anticipated is not enormous). The constant media attention is welcome, but could inflate expectations over the short term and hence could harm the long term future of eBooks by scaring off investment before time and leading eBooks to be branded failures before they gain purchase in an uncertain marketplace. There would be no shortage of people lining up to say "I told you so" when, or if, eBook sales do not immediately shoot skyward.

My fear then is that we could be entering a hype bubble, a bubble that will be followed by the inevitable bust, i.e. people will assume eBooks have not worked out, just as people are now beginning to assume that they are the Next Big Thing.

So while all the discussion, the interest, the massed activity and the hopes are brilliant we should all acknowledge that this is the start of a long process, possibly a slow process and probably a difficult one. We should do this not in a spirit of negativity but rather with a sense of guarded optimism. This attitude safeguards the future, avoids the mistakes of the past and allows this exciting nascent media a chance to develop.

ell bee eff is gonna rock ya

MacmillanThere was a strong focus on digitisation at this year's London Book Fair, with a full programme of seminars on the subject, and a general buzz around how to go about digitising your content. Sara also revealed, during the seminar entitled "Commercial Angles to Digitisation: Do They Exist in the Book World?", that Pan Macmillan will publish new print and e-books simultaneously from January 2009. Other big publishers making similar moves are Penguin and Bloomsbury. Read a US perspective on this UK-based news here. There seems to be a healthy progression underway from the question of "Will people want to read from a screen?" to active engagement with the task of going digital. With any luck, at LBF 2009 we'll be looking back at the year of digitisation and focusing on what else we can do with digital publishing, apart from eBooks.

For a quick run down on the central issues, listen to Sara's segment in The Guardian podcast from the LBF.

I attended a few of the digital publishing seminars, and also branched out into other topics, such as children's publishing around the world and how to get ahead in publishing. Points from the digital seminars that I made note of include:

  • We should broaden the definition of publishers' digital content, e.g. to include audio and video. I think some publishers already do encompass these other media in their concept of 'digital' but the underlying shift is to see books and reading as having cross-media potential in publishing, marketing and revenue terms.
  • Some ideas on how to exploit your digital content, including using print-on-demand services, distributing extracts via widgets, and so on. Some of the speakers on this topic really didn't go far enough, I thought - i.e. beyond their own product offering. I would echo much of what Sara had to say in a different seminar: digital publishing is not only about eBooks and p.o.d.; it's also about other digital media, cost efficiency, increasing print sales, and exploring other models such as e-only publication and webscriptions.
  • There's a general sense of separation between digitisation and digital marketing, and I'm not sure I agree that a sort of cordon sanitaire should be drawn between the two. Again, beyond eBooks that are a facsimile of the print books, digital publishing could well turn out to be an amalgamation of many digital 'behaviours' and it may not be a good idea to separate marketing and title creation... but we'll see, I suppose. The basic point is sound, especially when it comes to budget forecasts and such like. Of course, lurking in the shadows is the issue of customer satisfaction and how to achieve it with eBooks... to DRM or not to DRM? That is the question... (to mangle a perfectly good line from Hamlet)
  • Lots about the practical steps that need to be taken to digitise your content: XML, fragment, repository, processing... and other juicy words people like me, with an operational string to their bow, like to hear.
  • Setting the scope of your digital publishing efforts, and choosing your strategy accordingly are important. Fionnula Duggan, Digital Director at Random House Group, outlined an extensive vision of the drivers of digitisation and the spectrum of responses. She clearly identified Apple, Google and Amazon as the main sources of opportunity and threat in the offing (how would you place your bets?). This was good stuff, but it struck me that for many smaller publishers, the choices would be likewise smaller. There's a lot you can do with very little now - thinking tactically and making targeted, title-by-title experiments could be the way to go. Hilary Lambert of Sweet & Maxwell (part of Thomson) gave some excellent illustrations of how to test the market with digital product, evaluate the response, and adapt your strategy appropriately. Her key point, it seemed to me, was that publishers should work to properly understand the usage and value dynamic of digital products, and simply use digitisation to increase accessibility to your products.

the long walkWandering the book-lined corridors of Earls Court 1 & 2, I found there were also plenty of stands displaying eBook services and digital publishing solutions of various sorts. A strong presence from Ingram (and their Lightning Source service) and I heard and saw from interesting things about mobile technology and software-esque books. The friendliest reception I received, by far, was at the CPI stand. I also managed to snaffle a few cashew nuts and a dram of malt whisky along the way!