28 May 2014

BEA14: Selling Ebooks By the Byte

Are books quite the same as other digital media, or are they different? The panelists taking part in "What the Digital Book Industry Can Learn from Other Digital Media" approached the idea of opportunities for publishing to get better at digital media through different paths, but they were agreed that books aren't like other media -- better than a pat one-size-fits-all answer, but strangely unsatisfying.

Panelists David Steinberger and Joanna Stone Herman are both startup entrepreneurs working with publishing, while not necessarily of it: Steinberger is the CEO of Comixology, the iOS comic book app recenttly purchased by Amazon (somewhat controversially as its one-stop shopping capabilities were recently stripped) while Stone Herman is the CEO of new kid on the block Librify, a subscription ebook service just launching this summer. As such they are on opposite ends of the startup rainbow, but share a similarly sunny view of the power of digital media to win new consumers. (They kind of have to be.) I haven't tried out Librify yet but it sounds like it is designed to cater to the more casual reader with an emphasis on book club materials and book-of-the-month type subscriptions. ComiXology was more equitable in its treatment of new and hard-core readers in comic books, partnering with retail stores in order not to "disrupt" the direct retail business of selling comics. Naturally Stone Herman is in favor of subscription models to purchase ebooks, and Steinberger isn't.

My favorite panelist was Anoushka Healy, chief strategy officer of News Corp (have you heard of it?), who spoke from her newspaper background and the opportunities for consumer research presented by engaging in the digital space. I pray this wasn't just an apocryphal anecdote, but Healy shared some feedback when she worked on FT.com and a customer told their team "This is a great website -- have you thought about a newspaper?" Even when properties seem closely connected from the inside, those connections aren't necessarily apparent to people outside the industry. (If you don't believe me try quizzing a consumer about which imprints belong to which publisher. I myself sometimes mix them up.) Social media is a piece of that consumer research, but it isn't all of it. Healy also encouraged the audience to think about what consumers really want and not get too hung up on the use of specific platforms over others. That second piece could be the history of book publishing in the past 10 years, or a really strange country song I guess. Wherefore books and how to protect them? But if you can believe that digital sales will lift all boats, then you can forge ahead digitally without fear (or at least with less fear).

And indeed this panel seemed to be designed to reassure book publishing professionals that that cannibalization would not happen. It's what we want to hear but is it what we need to hear? Or am I being doom-and-gloomy for no reason? I'll never forget the Ghost of BEA Past that asserted ebook sales would eventually level off and what the heck would we do then; I felt the chill of that ghost in the room today. A better topic for next year's panels might be what print marketing can learn from digital.

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