I’ve just returned from running a series of seminars around New Zealand called Digital Publishing – What It’s About, How We Get Started. They were the first events from the newly-formed Digital Publishing Forum which I head and we wanted to see some specific action steps coming from it. If you want to read a bit about the seminar presentations, here’s a piece from Beatties Book Blog.
The “we” in the title was deliberate because, while the seminars gave individual publishers pointers to getting their own lists into the digital realm, it was also about coming up with a roadmap for some shared initiatives — things we can do as an industry to jumpstart digital publishing and ebooks in New Zealand.
On this point, here are some take-outs from my experience of the three days of listening and discussion. We weren’t just looking for big ideas. Given the relatively early stage the market is in — especially the consumer ebook market — small ideas that are simple to implement and help to build forward momentum were very welcome.
A shared digital warehouse. A digital warehouse fills many of the functions in the online world that a traditional warehouse and distribution operation performs in the bricks and mortar book industry. It stores, manages, distributes and accounts for the digital “stock”, mostly at a wholesale level. Having easy access to one can be a big boost to a publisher and an industry, just as lack of one can be a big hindrance. At last week’s seminars, we road-tested the idea that, early in the market here, we might be better to support a single digital warehouse to get economies of scale and, perhaps, a more united marketing voice. The idea seemed to get a good hearing from the local indie publishers. And among the major multinationals, who already have digital warehousuing through their parent companies, there was a willingness to also support a local shared initiative, provided it met certain requirements chief among which was security and DRM support. DRM support was a common bottom line among the majors but local indies were far less wedded to it.
Putting together a list of great New Zealand ebooks – the “pledge”. This idea came up in two contexts. First, how we can tackle the “chicken and egg” problem of which comes first, do we create our ebooks now or do we wait for consumers to demand ebooks. Secondly, when consumers do start reading on screen, how do we make their first experience great so they continue e-reading and recommend it to others, accelerating the growth of the e-reading market. The proposal was to get together a “starter” list of, say, 800-1000 quality commercial New Zealand titles, to create them in a simple and inexpensive way through bulk-buying of ebook production services (particularly for indie publishers, the major publishers already have a lot of ebook inventory), and to market them as a package to early market makers such as e-reader device manufacturers, ebook retailers, libraries, and others. To get this programme under way, I’ve suggested, for wont of a better word, that we could organise a “pledge” initially in which publishers can let us know which titles they’d be prepared to offer, under what (non-exclusive) terms, etc. This will again be a simple, inexpensive starting point to pursue a potentially Big Idea. Expect to hear more about this in the next month or two.
Digital rights marketplace. For me, the penny dropped when Penguin CEO Margaret Thompson told us that, while local retailers are not banging down the door demanding ebooks to sell, there’s increasing demand from companies who want to license content for use in their own digital products. So let’s encourage this trend. As well as a way for publishers and authors to earn more from their content, it can be a great way to build some of the new partnerships we need, such as between publishers and technology providers. I’m very keen to move this along and am now investigating adding a digital rights marketplace to our next event, the forthcoming Future of the Book conference in Auckland 24-25 June (more on this conference soon).
eBooksellers. Speaking of booksellers, a frequent lament was the almost total lack of “pull” in the ebook space from booksellers wanting to get involved. This was reflected in low bookseller turn-out to the seminars with only a couple attending out of 150 people. We need to find ways to get them involved early, whether it be traditional booksellers, online booksellers, or new entrants. There are opportunities begging, albeit in a small, early stage market, but there’s no cheaper time than right now to get started.
Just get started — and keeping a sense of urgency when the prize might seem a bit far away. I proposed several things that publishers can do today that are simple and inexpensive or free. The idea here is to just do something right now that will advance your skills or knowledge, make you a user of technologies your readers are using, help you understand the way digital reading works, or actually create some ebooks. The suggestions ranged from buying a NZ$389 iPod Touch which gives you a cheap, accessible ebook reader; to dusting off your authors’ contracts and making sure suitable digital rights agreements are in place; joining a social network; or actually creating or publishing ebooks today using freely available tools such as Smashwords or Calibre.
Continuing the dialogue — sign up for our new Linked-In group. Delegates wanted to get in touch with each other and to stay in touch. So I’ve set up a Linked-In group and we’ll use it to keep the dialogue going and make sure like-minded people with an interest in the New Zealand digital publishing industry can connect easily. Feel free to join up. If you don’t belong to the Linked-In social network, you’ll be asked to join. It’s free and well worth joining. It’s a professional-oriented social network.
Digital publishing in education. Two of the presentations at the seminar related to educational publishing. The education market is way ahead of the consumer market, in large part because they already have acceptable reading devices in the form of the ordinary PC and the increasingly popular electronic whiteboard. And, while most consumer ebooks are still simple black and white text, educational publishing uses the full gamut of rich media. Many delegates commented on the case study from Neale Pitches from South Pacific Press. “Inspirational” was the typical adjective I was hearing with Neale showing how a small Kiwi start-up can sell digital content to the world. Also inspiring to me was hearing from Pearson’s Adrian Keane that, for this big educational publishing company, global annual sales of digital products had already topped one billion dollars. And the smart way he showed of how to view the opportunity made it clear that it can be bigger yet. I’m conscious that we need to be finding ways for our educational publishing sector to work together to get New Zealand on the global map in a market that is already significant. I’ll be doing more work on this and hope during the course of the year to have some solid initiatives to work with. A starting point will be our forthcoming Future of the Book conference in Auckland 24-25 June which will have a whole stream devoted to the educational publishing opportunity. Again, more about this soon.