Saturday, 10 December 2011

Two Speed Europe

GBFGBA banner

David Cameron’s use of the veto in Brussels this week may be the beginning of the end of the UK’s full involvement in Europe. In truth we have been uncomfortable bedfellows with our European friends. Like a badly arranged marriage there has been a very uneasy relationship where we seemed to do nothing more than tolerate each other. While we appreciate each others arts and cultures, there is a void between the two beyond appreciation. We are an island race insular and cut off from intricacies of European life. The notion of Europe as an ideal super state with a single currency ruled by Germany and France from Brussels sits about as easy with the average Brit as rule from London by a UK led Super state would fit with them. Cameron, by using the veto, may be taking a risk by putting the UK outside the room while the important talks about the way forward with a European super state take place. The erosion of British sovereignty and British interests has been taking place since the UK joined Europe. From a British point of view it is hard to see what being part of this European community has given the average man on the street. This is the reason why there will not be a referendum on the issue of the UK staying part of the community. I personally don’t think this will ever happen, in fact there is more chance of the UK leaving by steps such as those taken by David Cameron this week.

The truth is though that the major political parties in the UK are not too concerned about the average family in the UK. They never have been. The Tories shut the mines, closed the steelworks and crushed the heart out of communities up and down the land. We are now reliant on importing huge amounts of coal and gas from our European friends. The Labour party ruled during what should have been an opportunity to grow a new Britain, prosperous and forward thinking, but instead chose to waste this huge potential and become a gluttonous and lazy government more intent on taking us into needless wars, bank deregulation and over spending in the public sector with no real improvement to public or community life. The Liberals are so keen on getting in power they would jump into bed with anyone just to taste it. At present, it is clear they will do anything to retain a seat at the right hand of power. 

The Conservative led coalition government have a mountain of debt left to clear brought about in part by the previous administrations lack of control on a banking sector it let free. Now the world is being controlled by banks and trading rooms don’t believe for a moment these dogs will be brought to heel or put back on the leash. Like it or loathe it the only way forward will be an uneasy alliance with the financial sector until the books are balanced. Greece has gone bust, Italy and Spain are on the brink, Ireland has severe austerity measure which include a VAT rate of 23%, France could teeter if Italy fails to pay its debt. Europe is a house of cards with many of the foundation cards removed or crumbling.

In the UK somehow we think we are detached from this. The English channel acting as a separator of the reach of European combustion. But we are not. However, if we leave Europe what will really happen. Will Europe cease trading with the UK overnight  or even over a period of time, months, years, decades. I think the answer is it won’t. Europe still wants trade. We import more European goods than we export. Even though UK exports are at an all time high to Europe. Would we stop taking European goods. Would Europe stop taking British built goods. The answer is of course not neither would make financial sense.

So what would we lose and what would we gain? There is a crude expression which says it’s time to shit or get off the pot. We do need a referendum because the ideal of Europe sold to us in the 70’s is far removed from this monolithic, lumbering and non-working folly of the 21st century. The Euro as a currency clearly is filled with flaws. Just one of these being many the countries who signed up for it not being in a financial position to actually qualify for it in the first place, because they lied about their financial strength in order to qualify. The truth is if the super state succeeds (which I doubt) Germany will rule the roost with France as their whipping boy and all the rest as their lackeys'. Will we ever have a government with the strength to return the question of the UK’s attachment to Europe to its people. Regardless of the outcome of that vote, were it to happen, I don’t think so. So what we will have will be a two speed Europe with the UK now in a position of lessened influence, regardless of the spin from Downing St. Though I know why Cameron used the veto. This is why European integration does not work for Great Britain. It really is time to shit or get off the pot.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Ghost of Christmas yet to come…


The ghosts of Christmas past, present and future are coming back to haunt retail outlets in our high street, or so it would seem. Three years ago I blogged about the depressing future facing retail, especially the world of book sales. The landscape today is not overly different from the clanging chimes of doom of three years ago. Some may say things have worsened but this is not overtly true. Things have shifted from the high street to online, though even here the furore of the arrival of eBooks has actually been slower to start than those who forecast the end of the paper book would admit.

What is clear though from a simple and unscientific test is that local bookstores are lacking constant footfall. The general consensus is that business is happening in waves rather than continually throughout the trading day. While stores rush to get in bed with eReaders as shown by WHSmith’s smart move to align with Kobo, some of these flirtations have been nothing more than a quick fumble in the back seat of a car. It is interesting to see that many Waterstones branches have ditched their eReader corners in their stores. Not a permanent dismissal of the technology since James Daunt’s arrival, but a move to pave the way for their own eReading device which surely must be on the way soon. The investment required to build from the ground up is huge as Amazon will testify. The question is though, even if Waterstones do announce a dedicated eReader, how is the supporting mechanisms going to enhance shopping in the store? What is Waterstones going to do to align the in-store shopping experience with this technology? Waterstones has experimented with a number of eReading devices from Sony to Eleonex and failed. Unless this question is answered they will be throwing good money after bad.

There are some simple, low cost things stores like WHS and Waterstones could be doing to make purchasing eBooks in-store a seamless reality. The fact is unless these stores educate consumers to purchase eBooks from the stores they bought their eReaders in; they are doomed to long term failure. Brand loyalty can only stretch so far.

WHS move with Kobo is smart as there is a dedicated store linked to the purchase of the eReader much like there is with the Kindle and Amazon, but this does little to increase in-store book sales. One may argue that these will erode and diminish over time, so is it a retrograde step or are there plans afoot to address store and brand loyalty with eBook and eReader purchases.

In this heated rush to get caught up with the excitement of ‘new’ technology are we also losing focus on the fact that traditional paper books still make great gifts, paper books provide hours of entertainment and are incredibly cheap (on the whole) when looked at the entertainment value they bring. eBooks offer the same value and often at a reduced price from their paper compadres but spectacularly fail as a gift. Again this is something books stores could capitalise on and easily redress.

In 2012 our high streets will face the toughest year ever and more empty retail outlets will occupy what was once prime space. The publishing industry and retail really does need to get to grips with the arrival of electronic books and find ways to integrate them into our retail space and not just our virtual retail space. For bookstores to remain on our high street there needs to be (as uncomfortable as it may be for some stores) a marriage of old and new book formats. If there isn’t it may take more than Kobo and James daunt to save what few book stores remain trading?

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Waterstones at a Watershed

In the past few weeks we have seen a number of announcements coming from James Daunt and the new management team at Waterstones and all of this has been looked at in isolaton. Looking at the bigger picture we begin to see what can be interpreted as Waterstones new strategy or part of it anyway. How much more has to be unveiled will be interesting but what is becoming clear is a distinct repositioning of the UK's leading book chain. Scrapping the 3 for 2 offer is widely seen as long overdue and to be honest it was a promotion which largely ignored smaller publishers. It appears James Daunt is keen to allow store managers a little more autonomy in promoting strong selling titles within their stores. This is great news for smaller publishers who often have titles which sell 100's of copies in stores but have not been able to capitalise on that success of find a way of sharing that with the store through a more organised system of ordering. James Daunt also wants to introduce tiered or banded pricing for titles, making their most popular books more competitive with stores selling at large discounts. It appears we are being drip fed the strategy by Mr Daunt and this is a wise move, allowing the industry to come to terms with this new direction. Daunt knows the importance played by the large publishing houses but clearly recognises that for too long they have been driving publishing and publishing retailing in the direction they wish to go. The emergence of digital has dictated that book retailers can no longer allow themselves to be herded in the direction these publishers wish to drive them. The announcement (long overdue) of Waterstones dedicated eReader is much welcomed and hopefully will allow publishers to work closely with them to develop ways to encourage a greater interaction between paper and digital books. Publishers need to work with book stores to support them with their digital content sales. Integration of devices, eBooks and physical stores is long overdue. Finding a way for this to work more seamless is a challenge for publishing and the likes Mr Daunt. Publishers can start to look at new promotions such as linked sales tying eBooks with physical books as well as making content available to buy in-store. Waterstones are in the perfect position to exploit and begin this dialogue.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


No romanticism. This was the old country and I’m not talking about Ireland or some fairy tale shit like that. This was East London. You could smell the air; fuck me, you could see the air. It was thick with chemicals blowing down the River Lea like a cloud of invisible death. Paint from Matchbox, paint from Berger paints, chemicals and all sorts of shit, like toxins and god knows what, from a myriad of companies that regularly flushed their waste into the river. This was our playground. On a baking hot summer’s day you’d walk in the long grass, being stung to fuck by nettles and you could smell that rich concoction of pollution. But along the river there seemed to be a connection somehow with the country. Not that we ever saw the country, but it felt like it. The heat of the sun somehow seemed magnified, maybe it was the water or maybe it bounced of the mishmash of factories that lined the edge, vying for space and offering the only employment you were likely to see...if you were lucky. Some of the buildings were already ghosts, pale imitations of a former glory. Broken windows letting light into the darkness within. They became the hunting grounds, the kingdoms and palaces of our dreams...of our imagination. It was either here or the bomb sites from world war two. They still existed 30 years after the Nazis surrendered and the Japanese paid the price for not surrendering quickly enough. Burrowed out holes in the ground, brick walls still standing somehow, more through dogged stubbornness. Like yellowed teeth in an old man refusing to have dentures. These houses ran the back of the park. All you had to do was jump the railings and a new world opened up. It was an adventure for kids ignorant to the death and destruction that caused these labyrinthine burrows of connecting cellars and partially collapsed houses. Sometimes you would find stuff. The odd coin, a penny or a bunch of newspapers or letters. Lives ripped from this world in a flaming inferno of violence dropping from the sky onto the shit hole houses. Many said Hitler done us a favour. He at least enforced some modernisation on the area. Now it’s the Olympics, but god help us if we actually see or talk to anyone from the area. Fuck’s sake they won’t even put the marathon route through East London for the shame of exposing the area to the world. We had freedom though. Only ourselves to care about. No paranoia about perverts or non-existent child killers. We ran the playground the full length and breadth of where our legs would take us without a care for boundaries or private property. What was private anyway? It was our world. Shitty it may have been but it was ours and in a way we was proud of it. Fools to ourselves. Escape came in our imaginations and if that wouldn’t do the trick there was always a pint or two of larger down at the social club – even though we were kids. We fought like soldiers on school trips – not that there was many, but we stood no shit from anyone. And we fought like warriors among ourselves. Sometimes all you could do was fight. Pain the constant reminder that you was alive. This was my playground and I called it home...I still do.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Is the eBook market reaching maturity in the UK?

Something is happening in the world of publishing as it appears the major publishers are finally reacting to the aggressive pricing of eBooks at Amazon by self published authors and independent publishers. This weeks top 20 only 8 titles prepared to take titles over £1. This is great for readers but a worrying sign for smaller publishers and independent authors who have led the way with pricing on eBooks so far. Karin Slaughter’s eBook exclusive ‘The Unremarkable Heart’ is priced at 44p and publishers Cornerstone is clearly going to make a killing. The good news here though is that entrepreneurial authors such as Louise Voss and Mark Edwards continue to give the big boys a bloody nose with their higher priced independent published novels ‘Catch Your Death’ and ‘Killing Cupid’. This is undoubtedly encouraging news for authors and smaller publishers. At the start of this year we ran a trail with pricing our books at under a £ and under a $ at Amazon and while initially successful we simply were not generating the income form the sales to make the venture worthwhile after Amazon took their 70% for the pleasure of hosting and selling. Being left with 30% of under a £ (or $) to distribute is not an enjoyable experience for the publisher or the author.

There is an interesting juxtaposition faced by independent publishers and authors and that clearly is that unless you are achieving sales in the 000’s it is commercial suicide to under-price. Our trial has ended and we have set our eBooks at £2.08 and $2.99 in the hope of maintaining and increasing sales through a price differential. The market is currently flooded with books under a £ and there are some truly excellent titles their from major publishers and independents as well as self-published authors. However, eBook readers are showing in response that they are prepared to view the playing field in a far more open way than they would if they were in a book store. Mark Edwards and Louise Voss have clearly shown that if pitched right eBooks can become viral. Something which is virtually impossible in the bricks and mortar world of traditional publishing.

We may regret increasing our eBook prices but there has to become a point where the eBook reading audience has reached maturity and become comfortable with buying new titles instead of expecting to download them free or having a less pleasurable experience through downloading pirated eBooks on torrents (along with a lot of other hidden viruses, trojans and malware). I think we have passed that point. Clearly readers are prepared to consume eBooks and to do so as voraciously as they do their paper counterparts, so the market needs to establish the true worth of an eBook without alienating this growing sector of consumers.  We must be aware the large publishers can undercut any price the independents care to set, so my thinking is that we should now be leading the way with pricing which actually reflect a serious business model for eBooks. Giving away 70% to Amazon or any other store is not a true working model for independents and I dare say not for larger publishers either (Though I would be surprised if Cornerstone are surrendering 70% rrp). By the same token pricing eBooks at a level close to the paper version is insanity and a reflection of nothing more than avarice by the publisher.

I think the market can bear a pricing model which is more consistent across the board. This would be beneficial all round and allow authors such as Voss and Edwards to truly financially benefit form their fantastic sales. I think eBooks will settle at around £2.99 as the market matures, this may be a year or two away but we have to be prepared to test boundaries and sometimes react before the larger publishers.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Tipping Point


Waterstones will hopefully have a new dawn and flourish on the high street but so much needs to be done to redress many of the inherent issues plaguing the industry from over-ordering through to distribution and needless third party handling of stock, which lead to delay, add to cost and reduce profits for stores, authors and publishers. eBooks are still a part of the equation and a very important part which allows both authors and publishers freedom to cut out some of the factors which have seen physical book stores placed under threat.

Publishers want to support book stores but elements of the current business model need to change. Yesterday I received a potential order by a major high street chain for 500 copies of a book at a 60% discount. This book will be ordered through a third party distributor (let's say Gardners) who will take anywhere between 20 and 30% for doing nothing more than acting as a middleman, delaying the order to fulfilment process, adding to the handling and potential damage of stock. Of course if the store placing the order continues with this process they will want to ensure they make a profit on the order, if our normal wholesale rate applied this would leave the chain with little profit to make the venture worthwhile. Hence the top line addition of a further 30+%. These books are given to the chain on a sale or return basis. Here is the dilemma. Each book sells at £7.99 rrp, we use POD and have a high print cost per unit, say £3. £7.99 -60% = £3.20. Leaving us 20pence per copy to design, promote, pay royalties, pay ourselves and any other extraneous costs and still run the risk of having returns which we have to then pay back and decide what to do with the returned stock. We can opt for a larger print run to reduce print costs but this will not be a significant reduction for a relatively small run of 500.

If the chain orders direct from our printer/distributor and has the books shipped direct they can save the middleman distribution costs increase their own profit line through increased wholesale discount % and make the order profitable for us. Will they? The answer is probably no. So, for a small publisher such as Caffeine Nights we potentially lose the opportunity see one of our titles in stores across the country at a sustainable level.

eBooks simply do not press these problems. So who will win out, eBooks or physical books? If this current business model is not changed the answer is sadly very, very simple and inevitable.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

World eReading Congress – So Cordially Invited...

Well in the end I was very cordially invited to join the World eReading Congress by the event organisers and help host the opening sessions on Tuesday 10th May with BBC’s Technology Correspondent, Maggie Philbin chairing the event. In fact it was a surreal moment for me to be introduced by Maggie.

The event itself cannot be criticised for its lack of scope, quite the opposite really, as the world of digital publishing came together from newspapers, magazines and books. Sometimes this mix was a little frustrating for the delegates who represented each of these sectors as it was also clearly obvious at times when they tuned out. Having said that, 2½ days away from the office was a big ‘ask’ of the delegates with such a crammed agenda.

In trying to offer something for everyone it could be argued that the organisers ran the risk of delivering nothing of substance to each of these disparate sectors. The interesting thing about digital publishing in all its forms is that inevitably there was enough cross-pollination to keep most delegates happy that they were either learning something which could be applied to their own sector or which could be adapted.

Events such as this rely on innovation, thought leadership, and discussion to provide a basis to determine success and for delegate to leave thinking their investment (anyone who read my previous blog about this event will know it wasn’t cheap) was well spent. There can be no denying that the event attracted industry leaders from each sector represented and in this sense the congress delivered. The CEO of Harper Collins, Victoria Barnsley OBE and Deputy CEO of Random House, Ian Hudson stepping up to the lectern to deliver some thought leadership from the world of books on the shape of digital publishing today.

Victoria Barnsley’s offered little new during her presentation and no real insight into Harper Collins approach to eBooks. She drew attention to Amanda Hocking and her independent approach to selling over 400,000 eBooks after numerous rejections from an industry which didn’t care about her or her writing until she became financially fuckable by the big boys. Barnsley argued that Hocking chose a major publisher over Amazon, who had joined the rush to snap Hocking up, because it was the right alternative to go with a traditional publisher offering the widest possible platform for distribution. I think whatever the outcome of Hockings career; Hocking will be having the last laugh. Victoria Barnsley closed with the comment that “We may not be able to control our destiny but we do have the means to influence it.” Here I agree.

Ian Hudson talked about our love affair with books and spoke of Cupid and emoted about our passion and romance with the printed word, and that it did not matter if that word was digitally printed. The main object was to connect with readers. At the romantic beating heart of Hudson’s address was a series of industry stats which reflected those of Victoria Barnsley. Each showing a huge year on year growth – no surprise here as we are starting from ground zero and most stats are going to show a spectacular rise and this will continue for some time. Both Barnsley and Hudson talked about authors going it alone with self-publishing and both gave examples in their own way, why going it alone doesn’t work. I detected an underlying sense of worry in Hudson and Barnsley, even though it was shrugged off.

The main concern for publishing though was largely ignored and that is the fall of paper book sales. There is a correlation to the rise in digital sales but it is not enough to account for the slump. Of course we are in the long tail of a global recession and leisure spending is decreasing but with two speakers from the largest publishing houses in the UK it would have been nice for a little more insight.

The content of the day seemed hell bent on not rocking the boat until Cliff Conneighton from Elastic Path Software presented. Conneighton presented the liveliest and one of the most thought provoking session of the day and actually threw out challenging questions to the gathered delegates. Cliff told us to forget everything we knew or thought we knew about digital publishing as basically we knew nothing anyway. This brought a smile to my lips but many delegates sat stoney faced, some even scribbled this down, either they had no concept of irony or humour. But at the heart of Conneighton’s statement was some truth. We are stepping into unknown territory and writing the rule book as we go.

Cliff Conneighton shared his 30 minutes with CEO of Lulu, Bob Young, a man who could impersonate Woody Allen with ease. Young brought the same sense of awkwardness to his presentation that watching a Woody Allen film would bring when you hope to watch a comedy on par with the Sleeper and get Match Point instead. Bob had a presentation prepared and decided not to use it for reasons which remain unknown. Instead he decided to wing it. Consequently there was no structure to Bob’s 15 minutes. I won’t guild the time by calling it a presentation. The upshot was that Lulu is not a publisher; Mr Young obviously feels this exonerates him from publishing some of the shocking books that grace his platform. I do wonder if the irony of ‘publishing a lulu’ is lost on many that use the platform. Personally, I actually think Lulu is doing a great service and providing a platform which gives access to anyone to become published, which is fantastic in this new publishing democracy. Bob imparted the knowledge that self-publishing including his Lulu platform accounted for about £500m global sales against £3.2bn for ‘traditional’ publishing, the inference being that platforms such as his were not a threat to Harper Collins or Random House. Lulu will be offering apps to their customers/publishers as well as eBooks, Paper books CD’s photo books etc. Never underestimate the small guy with specs. The world is a more colourful place thanks to Lulu and Mr Bob Young. I just wish we knew what was in that original presentation.

The other notable presentation of the morning was Alex Ingram from Waterstones. Ingram, eBooks and Development buyer was clearly more comfortable talking about Waterstones eBook strategy than the company’s at present uncertain future. Waterstones own eBook offering is supported by Sony and Elonex readers and one ponders the question if a new owner may back a more aggressive approach to the market to take on Amazon, at least in the UK, by announcing a dedicated Waterstones reader linked to its eBookstore. Amazon’s predicted announcement of a hybrid tablet, which has the best elements of the Kindle with an Android OS, could put further strain on the chain if Waterstones do not respond or pre-empt with a strategy to reposition its place in the eBook market.

A welcome discussion from Paul Gathercole of Universal Music on how publishing can learn from the mistakes of the music industry was the only time during the day when piracy was broached apart from privately during breaks at lunch and networking. Gathercole told how the music industry alienated itself by over-reacting and becoming heavy-handed with individuals as it panicked to find a solution to piracy once it had closed Napster. In fact, by closing Napster the industry had moved piracy from an area where it could easily trace each pirate using a single server to a massive underground network hiding behind more sophisticated hardware and software. As we contemplate Spotify for books or Bookify its clear that the challenges facing the industry are many, how we react, as the music industry has shown, is important because one wrong move can lead to a multitude of problems. Gathercole put it that the music industry thought that by slaying Napster it has killed the beast but in its place a many headed monster rose.

I attended the congress with a personal agenda and hoped to be given time during the Q&A sessions to raise some of the issues I feel are relevant in the industry. A selfish agenda admittedly, but one I still felt needed airing. Areas such as the imminent arrival of ePub 3, media rich content vs text, DRM, library eBooks and loans, Amazon and loans, mobile phone publishing, cloud computing, digital publishing and the old business model, social media, the Hargeaves report and the threat posed by literary agents becoming publishers were not even mentioned, or if they were it was nothing more than a passing comment. Sadly, each of the morning’s five sessions resulted in only one single ten minute opportunity to address all of the speakers on the content of their presentations and to try to touch on anything remotely contentious. Far too short a time than do anything but rub the veneer, let alone scratch the surface of the impact of digital publishing.

The main criticism of the Congress, as mentioned earlier is that the ambition of the event over-reached its capabilities to deliver anything but a snapshot of the industry, and by trying to cover too much content, too little depth was achieved. Ambition should not be criticised if the event organisers learn from this inaugural event. At least a third of the presentations could be dropped in favour of extended Q&A’s and possibly a congress which was not trying to be all things to all people. In its bid to attract as many industry elements as possible we ended up with a mongrel of an event. Maybe by hosting separate events aimed at each sector, such as a World eBook Congress, a World eMagazine Congress, and a World ePublishing Congress, the focus for specific industry questions and innovation could be directed more easily, giving more time and allowing for more scope for each sector. Nothing would stop a book publisher from attending an eMagazine Congress, nor vice versa.

One other presentation of note caught my attention and that was ‘Maximising success with web and mobile publishing from Richard Stephenson, CEO of Yudu media. Richard had some pretty impressive statistics concerning the loyalty of subscribers to digital magazines published on the Yudu platform. Some 64% renew through an automatic renewal system and talked of the importance of cross platform access and content providers developing content with different platforms in mind. One of the areas of interest for publishers must be the container app, especially for building brand loyalty. If publishers believe that product is more important than brand, rather than ‘as important’, then a container app may just be the tool to persuade them of the importance of developing a strong brand with great product.

Another important point given during the congress was a reminder of producing good metadata. This should be a given but sometimes it’s easy to neglect the importance of this tedious job. In fact one of the quotes of the day was “Metadata in the digital arena is going to replace the bookseller in the physical arena.” I hope the industry is actually planning to support the physical world more than just placing reliance on metadata as a substitute to recoup physical losses from the digital world.

I also think a lot of unnecessary energy is going to be spent on determining a winner in the battle of the eBook readers. A discussion at the end of Tuesday while amusing only highlighted the fact that some people like red wine and some people like white and some people don’t like wine at all. As with the music industry there is room from more than one format. Fiction readers will see the benefits of both Amazon’s Kindle and the bells and whistles of the multi-media offered through tablets, non-fiction and magazine/newspaper readers will benefit from ePub3 and the burgeoning tablet market. So this face-off on finding a winner is a pointless exercise. Readers will migrate to their chosen formats and there is plenty of room in the market for both.

The event had strong delegate representation from Europe, especially from the newspaper and magazine sector; at times this seemed to manifest itself with a very quiet and subdued audience unwilling to engage with the keynote speakers or presenters. Yet in contradiction to this, most questions posed came from people with strong European accents, so maybe it was the British who were reserved and quiet.
On the whole the World eReading Congress did deliver in some areas and I am sure that the organisers will make improvements moving forward. I look forward to seeing how this event develops.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

ePub3 - Media rich has to add consumer value

The arrival of ePub 3 will undoubtedly see a rush from publishers to make maximum use of its whistles and bells. Will fiction publishers be falling over themselves to produce media rich content? While I can see the temptation to add video author interviews or even authors reading chapters, my concern will be adding multi-media content just because we can, not because it is actually needed or adds anything to the publication. Platforms such as Vook have been around for a while and have set an entry level for media-rich eBooks, with ePub 3 opening the door too many more of us there could be a similar rush to provide content similar to the rush to provide eBook apps. Everyone is crazy to do them but who the heck is actually buying them.

At present the embryonic market for plain old text eBooks is slowly taking off and establishing itself in the minds of the consumer. I think the next area of development should be expanding that understanding, association and eCommerce platform, to be more accessible in our stores in the high street and not to get carried away with product which will inevitably push the price of eBooks up. I think this step could further alienate a budding market which could if left to embrace eBooks could blossom into a market which could bring a new revenue stream to the high street book shop as well as the Internet.

I am not for one moment suggesting we don’t develop media rich content but what I am saying is that we not in our haste ignore ways to ensure that eBooks not only reach a wider audience but that they sit as comfortably in book shops as their paper brothers and sisters. Stores sell eReaders, why don’t they have digital libraries which consumers can browse and purchase from – maybe even giving the option to buy a linked purchase of the physical paper copy with the digital one?

eBooks and digital publishing is the future but I do wonder if the industry is losing association with its roots in the high street and if, maybe an opportunity is being ignored.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

LBF11, ePub 3 and the next big thing?

So the London Book Fair is over for another year and I have to report that it was a far better fair than last year, though that comparison is like telling a man who has just lost his leg that you have been able to sell his shoe. The numbers were back and so was a genuine buzz. The IRC had a constant flow and deals were being negotiated not just in the IRC but also in the many cafes populating Earl’s Court.

But what were the hot topics of the show, what was the headline grabbing advance in publishing? For me there was only one clear evolution and that is still digital, especially the forthcoming arrival of ePub3.0. There were a number of seminars dealing with the development of the platform and fortunately most of them delivered in clear and concise language.

The key benefits for publishers with ePub 3 will be the ability to have multimedia rich eBooks with ePub able to host and stream video and audio content. This will have many clear advantages and open a world of possibilities. My main concern here though is for fiction publishers not to lose site of the fact that content is king and no matter how many fancy videos you incorporate readers still want a good read. We must never lose focus that it is the words which are and always will be the most important aspect of a book be it paper or digital. So, while great it is a tool we must use with caution and creativity. One of the other areas of improvement with ePub 3 is the ability to use Scalable Vector Graphics (SGV) files with greater ease. Though SVG’s have been around since 1999 they have not fitted well with ePub until now. The new version will bring a greater dimension to the graphical layout of ePubs. Clearly one of the big sectors to gain from ePub 3 will be magazines and non-fiction publications both of which can incorporate the two key developments.
Another step forward has been ePub 3.0’s improved metadata which will enhance text to audio features and help define key attributes of titles for better search parameters.

Bill McCoy from the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) gave an excellent presentation which I hope will be made available online.

There still appears to be an element of the gold rush with eBooks and apps, and many companies are clearly cashing in. One stall in the digital zone was selling its CMS app generating system – a cloud based app generator. All you do is upload your files to a predefined template and hey app. The software was simplicity itself and frankly my hamster could have generated an app using it so bravo to the software designers. Now before you all go rushing off to Google this company (who shall remain nameless) check your bank balance first. I was told that to produce one app using this remarkably simple software would cost...wait for it...£10,000 per book. I am glad I turned down the free offer of a ‘celebration’ sweet as I may well have choked on a mini snicker, though to be fair as I walked away I did have a major chortle. Maybe there are publishers out there desperate enough to jump on the next digital bandwagon but 10k for a crummy app is serious wedge and you are so very not likely to see anywhere near close to a return on that investment.

The next ‘big thing’ is going to be a glut of ‘social media specialists’ promising to elevate your books from the mire to the stratosphere. Two specialist companies were encamped in the digital zone, both of which were actually offering very good advice. Clearly many publishers require help with social media and also with traditional media. I watched amused as a packed seminar filled with publishers and authors alike scribbled in their notepads devouring the nuggets tossed from Gareth Howard of Authoright PR. Gareth talks a lot of sense and while a close observation of the content reveals nothing new or startling it was the response by the eager audience which clearly shows that there is an audience willing to pay handsomely for this sort of expertise. I would not be surprised to see a number of new companies eager and ready to mop up here, it will be interesting to see if the 2012 LBF shows an increase here.

There was the usual strong contingent of companies from China, India and Russia this year being the market focus. Once more there was not much new or startling from these areas. There was a marked reduction in companies selling proprietary eReaders. This may also be a case of a maturing market or one consigned to the dominance of Amazon and Apple in the market.

In summary, the LBF 11 was a success in a very challenging market. There was a palatable air of optimism, who knows if this was real or naive and wishful thinking but it was upbeat, positive and a huge step in the right direction. ePub 3 will launch later this year, July has been mooted but we will wait and see. One of the positives from Bill McCoy was that ePub 3 is an ongoing project and that we are not immediately going to rush to a new ePub 4.0 platform. This will be a genesis which evolves rather than a rewrite of the format, which for publishers, authors, and readers is excellent news.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

London’s Calling

London calling to the faraway towns

Now that war is declared-and battle come down

London calling to the underworld

Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls

The Clash weren’t talking about publishing over 30 years ago but after the disaster of the LBF in 2010 this song could well be the theme tune for the 2011 event. Despite a particularly stiff upper lip at Earls Court in 2010, there is no denying it was a complete waste of time and money for all concerned.

All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust

London calling, see we ain't got no swing

Let’s hope this is not the message this year and that London finds its swing. God knows the publishing industry needs it. It can no longer bury its head in the sand as far as digital and POD is concerned.

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in

Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin

A nuclear error, but I have no fear

London is drowning-and I live by the river

The digital age is coming and the creditors closing in.

Bookshops have stopped running and profits grow thin.

A DRM error but I have no fear

Publishing is drowning and I live by the river


London calling to the imitation zone

Forget it, brother, an' go it alone

London calling upon the zombies of death

Quit holding out-and draw another breath

London calling-and I don't wanna shout

But when we were talking-I saw you nodding out

London calling, see we ain't got no highs

Except for that one with the yellowy eyes

With London’s Calling, The Clash wrote one of the truly great rock’n’roll punk songs ever.

And every word of it is now an analogy for the state of publishing today.

London’s calling and I’m gonna respond in 2011

Let’s hope the industry survives.

Fantastic lyrics of London’s Calling belong in their entirety to Joe Strummer & Mick Jones

Saturday, 19 March 2011

World e-Reading Congress 2011…You are cordially so uninvited

Well, this morning I received my invitation to the World e-Reading Congress 2011 in London. I opened the mail with anticipation thinking here is an event which could be very interesting. My eyes were immediately drawn to the box-out in the centre of the letter which accompanied the 8 page colour brochure. The box read “If you register before 1st April you can save up to £290!”, at this point my heart sank and I realised here is another event which is not aimed at opening up the debate beyond the publishing big boys. Another BS back-slapping affair designed to make them feel comfortable with their own knowledge and without any real sense of what is happening in the real world. Entry to the event is only £3,822 though to be fair special publisher rates reduce this to £2,634 and if you cut out the Pre-conference workshop a bargain at only £1,710…get real! Have the organisers of this event really lost so much touch with reality that they think small publishers in this austere times can afford that sort of money, no matter how jam packed with goodies the 2 day conference is?

I don’t think so, I think it has been priced to make this nothing more than away-day for the big publishers. Publishing in the UK isn’t far from being on its knees and here is my ticket to gorge at the table of kings, if I am willing to put my business at risk to purchase a ticket for the pleasure. Let me think long and hard about this, what is a better way to spend (let’s be generous to conference and go cheap) £1710.00 the answer to that sadly is almost anyway. Clearly this event is nothing more that the same old closed shop of publishing trying to monopolise its usual position in the industry when threatened with a world of publishing which is becoming more open and more democratic.

It is truly a shame because I have no doubt that much of this conference will be useful, clearly though by adopting such a pricing policy the message being given out by the organisers is clear…”Small guys, you are so not welcome.”

Saturday, 5 March 2011

World Book Night

A huge success or just another case of a middle to upper class industry happily patting itself on the back. The chattering classes seem obsessively pleased and smug about getting books out to the masses (might as well say proletariat). Publishing seems so comfortable with itself with no good reason. The industry is in a mess, unable to cope with change but happily selling itself down the path of self-destruction. Listening to the gushing sentiments about World Book Day pouring or should I say spewing forth from the chatteratti is like listening to the banality of Labour declaring a bi-election win in Barnsley Central as an achievement and indictment of the government. Both of them nothing more than sickeningly self-serving verbal masturbations. I am not knocking the idea of World Book Day, just the execution. I would rather have seen 1 million books given to libraries which are currently under threat from spineless councils who would rather close much needed community services than sack half a dozen highly over paid county council leaders earning twice as much as the Prime Minister. I would also rather see the current Government putting pressure on councils to ensure that libraries are protected.  As for the greedy bankers crippling industry and about to lead the country toward further ruin while their greasy sweaty hands find even more deceptive ways to fulfil their unquenchable thirst for mammon, well…don’t get me started.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Death of the Book Store...Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it’s just the first round....

What we are currently experiencing is adjustment to a revolution, albeit one in a velvet glove. eBooks won't be the demise of the high street book store nor will they replace paper books.  The publishing industry has had problems long before the current rise in eBook popularity and a lot of those problems have been enforced on book shops by the publishing industry who have in turn bounced back some pretty unsustainable business practices. 

I love eBooks and I love paper books, (As long as they come from a sustainable source, are not mass produce in print runs that don't support demand and return to be pulped or used as even more landfill) to say that one will replace the other is not credible.  What we are however seeing is jostling for position.  We may well see one format become the 'Alpha male' as it were, and this may well be the upstart eBook. Publishing needs to look at itself and how it operates.  The demise of the high street book store could just as easily be attributed to publisher greed in selling product at ridiculous prices to supermarkets.  I am all for the democracy of both business and reading, but when consumers expect paper books to be only £1 what message does that send out. If you couple this with the blanket bombing of stores with product from the leading five or six publishers in the country you can quickly see that the whole structure of both publishing and high street retailing is based upon a fragile and vain turnover system which was started in the 19th century.

It is odd that publishing house eager for cheap sales in supermarkets is happy to do this at the expense of the stores which have been the foundation of their growth. We are left in the UK with one dedicated chain of bookstores, Waterstones, and they are trying to turn around some poor trading figures. Publishers have bitched about the high rate of returns they have seen from Waterstones but did they support those myriad of titles, did they create a demand for them or were they sent to their fate on a tide of apathy. Much of publishing has grown complacent and now it is struggling to come to terms with the new order. I believe given enough time Waterstones will get their house in order and return healthy trading figures, whether publishers let them is another thing.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Libraries and the smug majority…

Time to be contentious. The argument in the UK is raging about possible closure of libraries because of spending cuts brought about by the legacies of the recession and the god awful mess that the banking system brought the country to. Everyone is up in arms. People have organised events and stunts where libraries have been cleared of books and we all feel good. We all have that smug sense of worth we have when we buy a copy of The Big Issue.

There is no doubt that libraries form an essential part of our community. For some they are the only connection that people have either with the outside world, the world of art and literature and even the virtual world through the installation of computers with internet access. For others they are a lifeline to finding employment or entertainment or both. None of this I doubt for a second, but what I do doubt is the sincerity of the privileged, and I include myself in this group, to really care. Because if we really cared, libraries would be full, book shelves would be empty and funding would exist to ensure that there was no need to target them in the first place.

I have a library card, I have donated some of our titles to the library but I cannot tell you the last time I used the card. I am as outraged as every right thinking person when I hear that libraries may face the axe, but in all honesty what have the majority of people who are up in arms and so vocal now, actually done to support the system in the past. Yes, it is better to do something now and be vocal, I agree but I can’t stand the holier than thou attitude being flounced around the chattering classes about how dreadful it is and what they are going to do to support it. It is almost as though they are looking for praise for making a stand, but like me I wonder when was the last time they actually used a library.

If we are to be moral champions and guardians of vital community services such as libraries then we have to have the conviction beyond the battle and beyond the possible victories and defeats. We have to support not just the libraries but our communities. If councils want to make cuts let them start at the top and not at the bottom. Chief Executives earning hundreds of thousands of pounds, the minions under them hiding under cover till the storm passes, the actual waste, the cars, the expenses…there is plenty of places the axe can fall before it robs communities of its library, but we know it won’t.

It’s hard for me to truly understand the value of a library now as a person who buys his books, who has turned his back on libraries for his reading pleasure, but what I do know is that they make a difference to many lives. I gained a love of reading from libraries because I could not afford to buy books as a child. I loved the atmosphere, the sense of discovery in finding a new book or author. The fact that I could actually ask for a brand new book to be ordered and then be placed on a list and wait anxiously until the day when a postcard would drop through the letterbox telling me my book was available for collection.

This is why I am against library closures, because I know they make a difference now, as they did when I as a child was an avid user.  However, I feel as though I have betrayed the library service and placed it in this position of jeopardy. The painful truth is, and it is a truth that every person protesting about potential closures must face, is that we cannot be fair weather fighters. We must become long term supporters, true advocates of literacy in the community and we cannot allow ourselves to betray our community once more, nor should we let those who put libraries in this position escape punishment as they have. I no longer want to be a part of the smug majority. This is not an issue about feeling good about yourself, its a time for reflection and honesty about how we have let this situation arise and proving through action that the voice of the community is heard, and that this voice is saying to councils the length and breadth of the country that if you close a library be prepared to be voted out of office. Libraries and their closures should not be a point of political brownie point scoring or party blame. We know who is to blame and it will only be the action of the masses that will stop the closures. Beyond that we have a duty to ensure they are not put in a position of risk again.   

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Perfect Storm

A couple of years ago I blogged that the tree were falling – a metaphor for the impending world financial crisis and the forthcoming wave of gloom, but now as 2011 start it appears that we have all the ingredients connecting to make the perfect storm. A veritable tsunami which is sweeping through publishing. The collapse of trading caused by severe weather is meeting the tailcoat of the world recession (no matter how much those greedy son’s of bitches in banking say that this is not their fault and they deserve their astronomical bonuses) is collecting on one front to meet the closure of public libraries and the uncertainty of digital publishing on the other. To continue mixing my metaphors and borrowing heavily from weather parlance I would say that the outlook for publishing is bleak and unsettled. With only half of January under our belts British Book Shops have gone into receivership (despite a buy-out in 2010, followed by a fresh injection of cash and expansion) HMV stares into the abyss and could take Waterstones closer to the edge as it looks to close 20 stores and make redundancies at its Brentwood HQ. Rising fuel prices is putting the squeeze on business, inflation is on the rise and business rates continue to hike leaving empty stores in the high street as overheads bite into profits and banks (yes, them again) refuse to extend loans to see otherwise sound businesses through extraordinary times.

The culmination of all of this could be catastrophic for book lovers. With the public sector looking set to make libraries the whipping boys of their own dilemma, adding to the misery and desolation of our communities by leaving soulless shells where once stood resplendent hubs of community activity, one wonders where we will be this time next year. The worst case scenario of this perfect storm does not bear thinking about. We are if nothing, resilient and inventive and the truth of the fact is that we can ride through this storm and come out on the other side stronger and with publishing/book selling commanding a position which belies the prophecies of doom. Personally I think it will. eBooks will be a source of growth and enjoyment for readers, offering choice and value. Bookstores will co-exist and libraries while paired down in some instances will remain and wait for an opportunity for growth once more. Oh, and bankers will continue to be in denial that they ever caused a single problem, and bleat, whinge, bitch and threaten to go to Geneva, taking the banking industry with them. God only knows what Switzerland has done to deserve that threat…apart from hoarding Nazi gold…maybe after all they would make good bedfellows.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

The old adage may be true for publishing. With 2011 looking like the onset of the adoption of cloud computing, companies such as Amazon have adapted their platforms to embrace cloud computing in what should be a very positive way for consumers and publishers alike.

With over 28% of Internet users expressing a desire to own a Kindle it is clear that Amazon and it’s eReader are going to be major players for the foreseeable future. So Amazon’s forward thinking about the delivery of eBooks has been refreshing.  With the announcement of its eBook loan scheme coupled with the ability to access your titles over as many machines as you wish, Amazon has taken a positive step forward to dismantling the cumbersome ties of DRM.

The loan scheme in itself is interesting and something which will help increase author fan bases and sales and something that I have only support for when it is launched in the UK, hopefully later this year. Basically Amazon are allowing Kindle account holders to ‘loan’ books from their personal libraries to other Kindle users for a period of 14 days.  During this time the account holder cannot access the title.  I think this is a brilliant idea and something which will increase word of mouth for titles.  Hopefully the scheme will also open up other areas of possibilities for readers too.

The decreasing stranglehold of DRM from the uptake of cloud computing (i.e. the ability of eReaders to access content hosted on remote severs) is also a major positive step forward and one which will reassure consumers that the content they have bought and own will always be accessible to them on as many machines as they have registered with their account. DRM is too prohibitive and draconian to work and only hinders legitimate consumers.  Hopefully 2011 will see and hear the death knell of what is a counter-productive system which serves neither publisher, author or consumer well.