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Publishing: the digital product line as a complement, not a replacement (take-aways from BookExpo America)

May 29th, 2011 |  Published in Brands and branding, Media 2.0

29 May 2011 —  You could not have asked for a better “buzz prelude” to last week’s BookExpo America (BEA) in New York:  the Amazon/Kindle news, the bid for Barnes & Noble and the Waterstone’s purchase were all rocking the industry, points I touched upon earlier in the week (click here).     

But there was also a revelation:  technological innovation may be very cheap and accessible but that does not mean marketing acumen comes along with it.  One of the big issues discussed at last week’s BEA by book and music publishers (a complaint, really) was that despite the proliferation of Kindle e-readers, iPhones and iPads they still struggle to sell titles beyond those that already dominate traditional best seller lists or pop charts.  The long tail is not selling as expected.  

Surprise!  Publishing does not know how to market e-books yet and they need physical retailers to survive as showrooms for their titles.  Barnes & Noble had a major presence at the event and representatives said that many of its e-book sales take place in its stores, as customers order digital editions of the titles they see on the table of staff recommendations.  Browsing on a browser is just not as satisfying. 

Wow.  So maybe that justifies (explains?) John Malone’s bid for Barnes & Noble this month: the combination of its stores with the Nook e-reader … which has claimed 20-25% U.S. e-books market.    

And that was a big theme at BEA: viewing the digital product line as a complement, not a replacement, for the physical book.  Plus what many publishers called “distinctive” books that “really surprise when seen, touched, picked up.”  On area where this is demonstrated:  children’s books, which are seen as relatively digital-proof.  Said Robert Miller, group publisher for Workman Publishing and a major industry player:  “Parents want to buy their kids physical books.  It’s a [unique] pleasure of sharing a book with one’s child. Parents want to give them as gifts, hand them down.” 

At the FT forum, bookstores were urged to become “consultants”, editors “curators”, and publishers “customisers” which followed other discussion that the industry needs to develop high-end, engaging interactive products that will benefit from the re-imagining of the digital content format.  Because many e-books are similar to early films – staged like a play with a static camera – before gradually, people realized what they could do to exploit the medium.

And the other challenge:  continuing to invest in the print product without passing those costs on to retailers and consumers.  Lonely Planet’s publisher said that its new line is much more expensive to produce but they consider pricing very carefully.   A digital product can cannibalize print sales if the price difference is too great, making price parity a necessary goal (trade paperbacks and e-books are essentially the same price). Parity also matters when releasing updated versions of printed work.  The best example given was a book that probably all of us own.  The new, color version of Workman’s bestseller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die will have the same $19.95 price as the original, black-and-white version. 

And as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, publishers have even seen success with print books based on already-existing Web content.   The show was full of stories about people ordering print copies of book versions on free Web site. ”

The other counter-intuitive story:  Moleskine journals (and we all have one, I’m sure).  In an age of increasingly sophisticated smartphones and tablet computers, a surge in sales of Moleskines.  

Yes, functional distinctions in publishing are blurring, as online and digital sales rise.  Witness Amazon’s appointment of Laurence Kirshbaum, a publishing veteran, to head its new general interest imprint.  It is another sign that the digital battle to shape the 21st century publishing industry has been joined.  

And as a concluding note, let’s not forget the enormous power of Oprah Winfrey in this industry who after 25 years on daytime television brought her syndicated broadcast show to an end last Wednesday in the middle of the BEA.  Nobody stands a chance of capturing the audience she built in an era of fewer distractions.   The amount of books she sold through her recommendations was extraordinary.  Can anyone else recreate it?  Individual influencers lack the impact of a mass media celebrity.  Winfrey helped give Amazon’s Kindle its lead in the US market by recommending the e-reader in October 2008.  That kind of “influencer power” is unmatched.

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