(This article originally appeared in The Bookseller‘s daily for the London Book Fair on 14 April 2015.)
Print has an image problem. It’s just not cool or up to date. All the big money is going to apps and tech and social. Sales are generally heading down, and there seems to be nothing we can do to stop it.
But ‘books’ aren’t a single thing whose sales behave the same way across all markets and product types. ‘Publishing’ isn’t a single industry, and never was. Rather, it’s actually a dozen different industries that happen to share a distribution format. Whether we think of the nature of the content, the commercial model or the need that the customer is filling by buying the product do trade fiction and academic journals really have much in common? Apart from both being traditionally sent to their customer printed on sheets of pulped wood, that is!
A textbook is usually bought by a school and handed out to generation after generation of students for a year or so at a time. It is bought through distributors or direct from the publisher in sets of 30 or 100, and exists for the purpose of getting students the best exam results they can.
A novel, by contrast, is usually bought by an individual and might even be given as a present to someone else. It is bought on the high-street shop or from an online store, and exists to divert, entertain or edify us – or (as a gift) perhaps to allow us to demonstrate our love for our family or friends.
So, why would we expect them to behave the same way in the market?
The main narrative about the publishing industry is strongly driven by what’s happening to trade fiction. This is a very visible and popular sector of the publishing industry, but it’s far from the only one.
Fiction isn’t even the first sector to be hit by the digital transition. Reference books (like encyclopedias, dictionaries and maps) have been decimated by the rise of computers and the internet, with competition initially from Encarta and its CD-ROM brethren and more recently from Wikipedia and Google Maps.
The ebook is really only a major challenge to narrative storytelling and, to a lesser extent, linear, non-illustrated writing like business books. Despite huge efforts, ebooks have made almost no penetration of education, children’s books or trade non-fiction.
Of course, apps and other new forms are trying to break into these areas, but they remain robust in print. We heard recently that sales of children’s books in the UK rose by over 9% last year, despite the overall declining market. This isn’t an accident.
Know your value
We mustn’t allow ourselves to forget that print remains an excellent solution to many of the problems our customers are trying to solve. This is my key message during the London Book Fair: through all the concern and change and concentration, remember what we are for.
If publishers exist to deliver written content that meets our customers’ needs then, to succeed, we need to focus on three key areas. First, we need to identify needs our customers have that we can satisfy with the written word. Second, we need to find or create content that will satisfy that need. Third, we need to deliver that content to our customers in ways that they will accept.
Almost all of the talk about digital is focused only on the third of these three. And, crucially, this is the area that is the least unique about our business, overlapping hugely with television, videogames, greetings cards, advertising and many other industries. So, although we should be involved, it’s not where we’ll find standout success.
Publishing brings unique value to the first two of those areas. This means that we need to understand our customers, and to be able to create content that they will buy from us. Although we’re often not as good as we’d like to be at understanding our customers, we are fantastic at creating content!
In other words, the most important teams in publishing are our editors. This is where we create the value that our customers pay for. If we skimp on editorial or, heaven forbid, replace them with ‘digital people’ then how will we identify and deliver that value?
We also need to support our business with the right tools. We need solid data about what our customers need and how they read. We need great platforms for creating and quality-assuring content in any format (print, ebook, app, whatever). And we need channels to get that content to our customers.
If we invest in the people in our businesses who create the value we then sell to our customers then publishing will be around for a long time to come. But if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the things we share with other industries, we’ll disappear – because we’ll have forgotten why we were here in the first place.