By June 8, 2009 6 Comments Read More →

BookCampTO explored the publishing ecosystem

You can be excited by the way things will be or steadfastly attached to the way things have been. BookCamp TO was about embracing the potential of the book publishing industry and working towards a common understanding of the challenges that are being faced.

And it worked.  I believe the success of BookCamp TO was largely due to the energy people brought with them and Hugh McGuire‘s brilliant kick-off speech in which he said that the goal of the event was “not to find solutions but to be equipped to ask better questions”.

Clearly BookCamp was long overdue. It was electrified as people who love books were given the opportunity to express their concerns about the current state and the future of the publishing industry to people who were similarly interested in hearing what was being said.

I find it interesting that the challenges being faced by the book publishing world are the same as or similar to the struggles faced by the music industry, radio, newspapers and now television. It seems to be a time of universal renewal.

There were three recurring themes that I found particularly interesting.

BRANDING

Noting that the market is strongest for personalities, most publishing houses invest their energy in promoting their authors (this is great if the author is a known entity). However, publishers are forgoing their own identity and personality.

This, of course, it not true of all publishing houses. Harlequin, O’Reilly and Oxford all serve specific niches for which there is an obvious branding opportunity (and one they’ve all worked very well). For generalist houses like Key Porter the opportunity for branding is not specifically obvious. This was the subject of an interesting and ongoing discussion. At one point I suggested that publishers need to do more to create their own brand and identity — promoting authors, particularly those that aren’t signed to a long-term deal, is gambling with the publicity budget. When Key Porter expressed concern about the idea of passing on a particular title because it doesn’t match with the house’s brand, Nathan Maharaj asked “what’s more important; brand equity or publishing a book?” Eden Spodek suggested that houses like Key Porter could focus on vertical niches within its catalog and build imprints with their own communities (e.g. Key Porter Cooks, Key Porter Travels, Key Porter Business…).

DESIGN

Books have always been as much about form as they are about content. Print publications allow publishers to control the form of the book and increase their impact through the visual experience. Of course, this is particularly true of textbooks, photography, business and children’s books. The move to electronic ink means rethinking the form and publisher control over it.

There are two types of electronic publishers: the gatekeepers of literature and culture; and, the curators of literature and culture.

Amazon‘s Kindle (only available in the US) is a gatekeeper of literature. For the power of publisher control over form and design, the Kindle requires Digital Rights Management (DRM, something the music industry once required and is now abandoning) and Amazon decides what will be published on its platform. This means that individuals are not able to create their own books and make them available on the Kindle. It also means that the books you buy for the Kindle cannot be viewed using any other technology.

The OpenEBook.org project is working on an open standard for electronic books and readers. The standard uses coding which offers limited control of form by book publishers. This means that things like images and kerning have to be considered (or excluded) for the whole of electronic readers with their various screen sizes and resolutions. The advantage is that individuals and organizations (York University being one example discussed in the session) have the ability to make their works available electronically for all platforms including iPhones. BTW, Sony has embraced the open standard for electronic books (yes… the same company that created Betamax).

PROMOTION

Publishers have long depended on authors (and illustrators) to participate in the process of promoting their books. Until recently, most of that promotion was done through word of mouth and book tours. Now we have blogs, podcasts and social media networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Ning, and communications tools such as Twitter.

The problem is that the how and why to use the tools is too often an afterthought. Publicity departments think of these tools tactically, not strategically. They tell their authors without thought that they need to use everything and the kitchen sink. The result is disjointed and confused and becomes a nightmarish headache for the author to maintain. Furthermore, the author’s efforts may have nothing to do with the marketing strategy or worse, could work against it.

There also seems to be a misunderstanding of the tools. Someone said that it shouldn’t mean “you suck” if you can’t build a network of more than thirty people around your book to which Mitch Joel said quite bluntly, “yes, you suck”.

PARTING THOUGHTS

If we don’t breed young readers now, there will be noone interested in books no matter what form they’ll be available in twenty years from now. That’s why I read The Carrot Seed aloud to kick off my session on book, author and publisher promotion. The idea was to get people away from thinking “if you build it they will come” to understanding that “if you attend to it and nurture it no matter what people tell you, it will grow”.

BookCamp was invigorating and, I believe, just the beginning. The conversation needs to continue. Publishers need to work smarter and maybe a little harder to reshape what they do in the digital age; they need to think carefully about their own brand as well as the brands of the people they work with; they need to consider if they want brand equity or to just publish books; they need to understand the digital tools and why and how to use them; and, they need to look at the industries that have already dealt (or are currently dealing) with similar struggles in an effort to stay relevant and ensure their future.

There’s a lot to learn and an abundance of creative ways to keep the publishing ecosystem strong without dictating how the ecosystem will look and feel.

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About the Author:

Mark Blevis is a digital public affairs strategist and President of FullDuplex.ca, an integrated digital communications, public affairs and research company. His work focuses on the role of digital tools and culture on issues and reputation management. He also leads research into how Canadian opinions are shaped through online content and interactions.
  • http://www.twistimage.com/blog Mitch Joel – Twist Image

    Not true… I said if you can’t get more than 3 people to follow you on Twitter it means you suck. I’ll stick by that one ;)

    Otherwise, it was GREAT to see you and this is an amazing summary – thanks Mark :)

  • http://www.markblevis.com Mark

    I plead “back of the room” for hearing 30 instead of 3.

  • http://bargainista.ca Eden Spodek

    Thanks for your detailed recap of BookCamp, especially for some of us who were unable to attend the event in it’s entirety.

    As much as I live online, I can’t imagine a world without books or without children reading them and exploring that tangible experience of turning the pages and looking at the pictures and words with their parent, teachers and older siblings.

    Thanks to you and Andrea for bringing the issue of children’s literacy to the forefront.

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