BBC Radio 4 – The Bottom Line | Books and The Future of Publishing

BBC Radio 4 programme, The Bottom Line, discussed books and the future of publishing last week. Presented by Evan Davis and featuring studio guests Jonny Geller, literary agent and joint CEO Curtis Brown; Victoria Barnsley, CEO of publisher HarperCollins UK & International; Michael Tamblyn, Chief Content Officer at Toronto-based ebook retailer Kobo. The programme was first broadcast last Thursday and repeated on Saturday evening.
From the programme preview:

“Like the music industry before it, the print book industry has been turned upside down up by the digital revolution. As sales of ebooks continue to grow, bookshop sales are down from a peak in 2007. So what does the future for hold for the bricks and mortar bookstore? Will physical books become a thing of the past? And what role will traditional players like publishers, agents and retailers play in this brave new world? Evan Davis and guests examine what the landscape might look like once the dust settles.”
You can listen to this half hour studio discussion again at the link here.

Discussed and Rough Notes:

Reflection and evolution of the publishing industry
Tamblyn reflects that self-publishing has now changed the business. Barnsley plays the ‘we are the content providers now’ and that publishers were once retailers, but perhaps no longer, and the new role for retailers is discoverability without the guarantee of a sale.
Are industry roles like agents and publishers superfluous?
Barnsley: yes, roles will merge. Geller believes the role of agent must expand to embrace the changing landscape into other areas like film. Bizarrely, Barnsley skips around Evans’ suggestion that authors don’t really approach publishers directly any more with her retort, “We buy more authors without agents than we did in the past.” Yeh, right, Vicky! She believes that authors now expect publishers to be more than just publishers, but also brand managers. “We’re here to look after your career and not just your books.” Barnsley: more direct selling of books by publishers to come.  Tamblyn believes that as the roles merge and crossover into retail that some may say: “I don’t really wanna do that.” Barnsley: can the publishing industry cake support so many new entrants into the business?
Self-publishing phenomenon
Geller: authors are finding their place first and then going to a publisher. Barnsley: a lot who self-publish and get a publishing deal say they are glad they have the big house support like Amanda Hocking. Cites Hocking as saying the author was so glad she didn’t have to be the CEO of a publishing company anymore so she could just be a writer.
The power of e-books and Amazon
Barnsley: more the internet than one online retailer. Evans clarifies and puts things back on track with his quip that it is really about the retail concentration of the industry, as happened with music. Barnsley: supermarkets started it, then came the online market. The end of fixed pricing in the UK changed things.  Geller: the reduction in book pricing was a good thing, but it has gone to an extreme. Barnsley: Fiction is driving the ebook tipping point of books, but sales will level off to 50/50 for quite some time. It’s all predicated on physical bookshops surviving. Evans: the problem is also influenced by the cost of physical book distribution.
e-Book pricing – why are they still so expensive?
Geller: the 20p book and other low pricing is because of the device war. It’s training the market not to value the book. Barnsley challenges Tamblyn for shirking away from very low priced market. “Michael. That must limit your market!” Funny, big publishers are shirking away from the low price. A case of the publishing kettle calling the retail pot black! So is the publisher philosophy: retailers screwed us over so let them now take the hit? Evans: once I buy the device I’m locked in. Suggesting to Tambyln that there is then no completion after that. Tamblyn: it’s about how good can you be once you have the customer. Barnsley: if you don’t have DRM, you allow market sharing. That’s what scares publishers.  But walled gardens like Amazon are not a good thing.
The global dimension to books
Barnsley: Online markets are encroaching into what used to be standard markets. Tamblyn: the publisher group still tells us where we can and can’t sell books. Emergence of transnational companies selling e-books around the world.  Geller: publishing is becoming about data gathering and how you analyse it. Barnsley: publishing used to be about employing people with degrees like me, now, it’s about employing rocket scientists.
The Physical bookstore
Tamblyn: question is what is the size of the future bookstore? Evans reminds them that the threat is on two fronts, physical and e-book competition. Physical books can still be bought online.  Barnsley: US shoeshop stores now charging just to go in and try on shoes! Maybe bookshops should become book clubs. Geller: it needs to be about handselling, but in a place where people actually want to buy books. Tamblyn: it must be about the experience of buying a book. Geller: need to experiment for retailers where the bookshop might be like Argo, with an online catalogue! (Even more bizarre – isn’t that what Amazon and the like do?)
The Book
Barnsley: it’s about how the content will change – interaction, serialization etc,. Geller: audio books in dual languages. Authors very adaptable.

The Bookseller and the Melville House blog also picked up on this programme yesterday. Not surprisingly, most of the commentary focused on Ms. Barnsley input.

My own opinion is that Victoria Barnsley did an outstanding job at the helm of Fourth Estate when it was one of Britain’s great independent success stories of publishing. However, since moving to HC, she is quickly becoming the poster girl and voice of all that is wrong with big publishing houses in the industry today.
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