Future of publishing takes shape in Germany


AS THE 2010 Frankfurt book fair opens, publishers are finally squaring up to a new era.

The brief furore surrounding Odyssey Editions, a digital-only imprint launched by the Wylie literary agency in July, showed us just how appealing a new entrant to the field can appear to those eager to dig the grave of "old publishing".

In times of rapid evolution, a newcomer can always steal a march; but such times also offer a great opportunity to more established players who can adapt quickly.

Here are four challenges to existing book publishers in which the new entrants will reap the rewards if the older hands don't change their ways.

1. Digital royalty rates

Odyssey Editions declared one fundamental advantage for its authors: a higher royalty rate on backlist. But the launch of Odyssey was more a response to a deadlock over royalties for classic titles than a challenge to the notion of the publisher's role.

Publishers must understand that aspects of the model around royalties may change. Equally, authors need to know that the pricing and costs around e-book publishing are far from fixed. No one yet knows where digital publishing will stand in the life of a work what proportion of the overall value it will represent alongside the physical book, and at what cost.

2. The editorial relationship

Over the last decade, heavy discounting of books in the mass market, plus the rising expense of marketing, have forced publishers to reduce their costs. One area on which some have cut back is the actual editing of the texts for publication. This is a mistake. High-quality editorial support is of tremendous value to most writers, and to readers too. It's no accident that the independent publishing sector, where the best companies put editorial vision at their core, is thriving.

3. Creating audiences

Since the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, publishing has become increasingly dependent on mass market distribution. That's no longer adequate in our digital age, where readers, ever more visible and opinionated, do not defer to the book trade or traditional media alone. Publishers who continue to rely on big marketing spends and piling books high in bookshops will see their role gradually (if not rapidly) diminish.

4. Technology

This is perhaps where book publishing is most vulnerable. In a tough recession, investment in new skills, people and technology is difficult.

However, looking around I can already see a marked acceleration among existing publishers. Penguin, for example, through their Puffin imprint, started to tackle the question of illustrated reading for young children (see the Spot app on the iPad.)

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