Publishing and the Digital Divide

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The London Book Fair © photo: Mike Walsh

London, GB (Weltexpress). Book publishing in the digital era seems to be almost an oxymoron. However, as the London Book Fair 2014 proved once again, books are today every bit as popular as they always were, and still provide the core story form from which a range of other media derives its inspiration.

“The London Book Fair is not a place for authors…”, or so an assembly of fifty or so published and unpublished hopefuls were told by American novelist Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Falling Angels and The Last Runaway).

The event was the London Book Fair which took place this year from the 8th – 10th April at Earls Court. Tracy Chevalier was one of number of authors giving advice to industry aspirants in an extensive programme of seminars, chats and presentations. Those looking to have their manuscripts read, or to discuss their work with potential publishers would be disappointed as the hundreds of publishers and agents present were not there to see new authors but there to see each other.

On first sight there are two very distinct sections at the London Book Fair. The ground floor accommodates the publishers. The largest internationals such as Random House or Cambridge University, were showcasing the latest titles from the pens of household names. Tucked in-between the larger stands, many of the smaller independent publishing houses with a handful of niche titles were also present. From witchcraft to cookery – almost every subject you could think of was to be found.

Upstairs it was a very different story. Rows of tables and barely a book in sight. Reminiscent of a high school examination hall, this was the powerhouse of the fair where the international rights to the books were traded in negotiations between agents and publishers. Typical of the book world that big business is done with little fanfare but a focus and intensity which is positively palpable.

Tucked away behind the publisher’s stalls and occupying a fraction of the Earls Court II Hall was the Authors Area. The opportunities for networking, knowledge building and particularly for exploring the trends in digital publishing were extensive. In the adjacent Tech Area – almost like an afterthought – the innovative side of modern publishing could be found. Whilst the placing of the Tech Area was a little unfortunate for a 21st Century Industry worth billions of pounds annually then the activity and creativity within it were gems waiting to be discovered.

On the face of it, the book industry and the computer industry could not be further apart. One deals with static and inflexible information whilst the other has flexibility and accessibility at its core. These two industries though are working together to bring a reading and learning revolution to readers the world over.

Marcello Veno of RCS Libri, the book publishing division of the Italian worldwide RCS Media Group, outlined two fascinating projects in Italy which demonstrated innovation through partnership. The first is a collaborative project with NTV the Italian railway company to make E-Books available on trains. The project offers travellers free access to a range of books on long distance journeys. The payback for the publisher is that it allows them to get first-hand information of the traveller’s choice of reading material. Regular commuters who can read a book over several journeys appear to be the target and the offer for readers includes several well-known Italian authors as well as a small number of international names.

The second and much more recent project presented by Marcello Veno is aimed at a much younger audience and pushes the marriage of technology and reading to much more exciting levels. Launched by Rizzoli books on the 26th March this year the project is called Le Grande Fiabe Narrate (The Great Fairy Tales). Bringing together the audio book and picture book experience, the eBooks feature synchronised images with the narration of each story. Sound effects illustrate the images where appropriate and each character in the narration has their own voice. The project aims to promote quicker understanding of written language through immediate referral to visual and other aural cues. This is the key. The heart of the experience is still the written word – not the narration. The additional stimuli of narration, sound and vision are there to support children in learning through the written word and not to replace the experience.

Away from the creative use of technology were the established and not-so-established computer businesses seeking and finding opportunities to support the marketing, infrastructure, logistical and back office needs of publishers in the digital age. One noteworthy innovation challenges the way potential customers experience online book browsing. Currently, online bookstores offer little more than a photograph of the front cover, a reprint of the blurb on the back, a brief introduction to the book and an opportunity for reader reviews. Yudu have launched an initiative called ‘BookSnacking’ which offers much greater functionality than the traditional sites. Richard Stevenson, CEO, described how their software can allow potential customers to browse a book before buying. Links to the book can be placed on social media sites and other advertising media as well as on traditional online book sites. At £100 to place a book on Yudu, the service offers a cost-effective way to help customers see more of a book when buying online and close that all-elusive sale.

Whilst the creative side of the market was very much in evidence the more technical and business- oriented presentations could not be ignored. Impelsys CEO Sameer Shariff’s presentation demonstrated worldwide business control systems that are essential in the 21st Century market place. Giving users instant access to a whole array of marketing data, their solution allows publishers to offer customers greater freedom and flexibility in accessing books.

The sheer number of exhibitors together with the intense activities in the International Rights Centre leave the visitor to the London Book Fair in no doubt that books are still big business, even in this digital age. Contradictory information on the decline or rise of traditional book sales versus eBook sales hide the simple truth that the future of book selling lies in the publishing industry embracing and using the rapidly-changing opportunities for eBook publishing and intelligent marketing through technology. Whilst eBooks are here to stay there is no doubt that there is still a healthy market for the printed version of a good read.

A good read…which is something that technological developments in publishing cannot always guarantee. Whilst the view of authors such as Tracy Chevalier is that a serious author must have an agent and a traditional publisher, self publishing offers the aspiring author without a contract an opportunity to ‘get their book out there’. Publishers such as The Endless Bookcase offer authors such an opportunity. The company’s strategy on quality control is only to accept authors who have previously been published – presumably on eBook sites where proper editorial and quality control may be lacking. Other than this, the public will be the ultimate arbiter on whether a book is a success or not. Away from the glitz and big budgets of established international houses offering high quality products to a discerning marketplace, technology is opening up business opportunities to potentially less selective players. Literary Karaoke where everybody gets a go at being an author for a day, or a golden opportunity where the public and not the publishers choose tomorrows stars? Whichever way it pans out, don’t expect to see the demise of the paper book because that will always be the gold standard for the published author. What the digital revolution will bring to the industry is accessibility and choice – and if Rizzoli have anything to do with it, an exciting multi- sensory experience for the reader.

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