Meze Publishing’s Phil Turner reports for us from a lively and optimistic gathering
In 2017, everything feels different. Brexit, Trump and a publishing industry that is still trying to figure out what the future holds. But as I landed in New York for Digital Book World (rebranded DBW because, believe it or not, the organisers are worried that ‘digital’ sounds a bit outdated) we were just a few days away from the 45th President’s inauguration and the air was thick with tension. Protestors, police and TV news crews were gathered at Trump Tower, and his face adorned TV screens in hotel lounges, sports bars and front rooms across the city.
Just as Trump’s surprising election success suggests we have entered a ‘post-truth’ political landscape, DBW likewise has entered a ‘post-digital’ era. That’s not to say that digital is dead: far from it. It’s just that the publishing industry seems to have stopped all the handwringing about whether or not ereaders, the internet and smartphones are going to kill the print industry. It’s OK: they’re not. In fact, they may even help it blossom.
I was keen to discover at DBW what the future holds for an old dinosaur like me—a cookbook publisher who is yet to publish ‘digitally’. First, some stats. According to Nielsen, sales of ebooks have dropped by 16% in the last six years, while traditional publishing markets have increased in both the US and the UK in the same time period.
And there’s more good news from across the pond. Oren Teicher from the American Booksellers Association told DBW of a growth in the number of independent bookstores across the US. New York’s Greenlight Books is typical of the new breed—run by young, technologically savvy entrepreneurs and succeeding by creating experiences, whether that’s by hosting poetry recitals or having a decent beer on tap. Even Barnes & Noble is getting in on the act; its latest rollout of concept stores offer cafés serving beer and wine and lots more room to relax in. The idea is simple really: give people something they can’t get online.
Other DBW sessions indicated that publishers now accept Amazon as a force of nature that can’t be stopped and may as well be embraced. So there’s lots of advice on how to make the retailer work for you—by making sure you got your metadata right to maximise sales, or by developing coherent digital marketing strategies, which OptiQly’s Peter McCarthy told DBW should be “fluid, nuanced and reactive”. Social commerce—selling directly to customers through social media channels—was another buzz phrase of the week.
The truth is that there is so much data out there, and so many ways of reaching audiences, that publishers have no excuses for not creating content our audience wants to buy or for not getting it in front of them. And it struck me throughout DBW that despite the advances in technology and new ways of packaging content, the content itself is still king. For example, the origins of Serial Box, a nifty new app delivering a weekly slice of fiction straight to your smartphone, are pure Dickens. The rising popularity of audiobooks comes more than half a century after the first wave of books were recorded onto vinyl.
So far, the traditional publishing industry has survived the digital revolution better than many expected, and much of what was said at DBW indicated that the future is looking bright—perhaps brighter than for some time. We just need to remember to put our content, and not just our format, at the heart of what we do. As e-publishing analyst Thad McIlroy put it in the closing session of the Conference: “Create once, publish everywhere.”
Phil Turner is founder and managing director of Meze Publishing, winner of the 2016 Nick Robinson Newcomer Award at the IPG Independent Publishing Awards. You can follow him on Twitter here. He received a trip to Digital Book World under the event’s Fellowship Programme with the kind support of organisers and IPG member F+W. Phil flew to New York with Virgin Atlantic.