The Business of Books in Search of an Agora. How to re-define the debate about the business of books (and publishing industry conferences)?
May 16, 2019 by ruediger

Deutsche Fassung hier.

How often do publishers ask their interns for advice?” Sara Sargent of Penguin Random House was raising the question, provocatively, yet with a smile, in her keynote address to the Publishers’ Forum in Berlin. She discussed how traditional book people can learn about new young audiences who seamlessly navigate between reading, binge watching, gaming, chatting, texting and posting, while having no remorse of blending their books and reading with all the other intake they have in their daily lives.

How, and where, and from whom do book people learn? This is the question I want to raise, after countless conversations over the past half year with colleagues and friends, recognizing that, at least in my view, in our industry we are dramatically short of functional, adequate, open and diverse enough platforms and formats to address

  • Concerns around transforming markets and reading audiences;
  • Insights on new audiences, not just for books and reading, but to new storytelling, new consumer practices, and crossovers between entertainment, education and access to knowledge;
  • Learnings from successful, and failed, steps of transformation;
  • Strategies for re-thinking the business of books and reading.

Closing the Publishing Forum in Berlin after 16 editions, and hearing from other organizers of professional discourses many similar acknowledgements of a loss of traction with stakeholders and audiences, I see a necessity to re-think the professional debate about the business of books (and as a result, of publishing conferences) on multiple levels:

  1. We need better formats.
    The common mix of keynotes, panels and workshops results in debates that are either too general, or too granular, and hardly effective in feeding new insights and experiences across sectors and hierarchies;
    Too little preparation and formatting of input occurs before people gather for their exchange; and too little provision of tangible takeaways is given after they return to their routines;
    We spent most of the cost on airfare, hotels and fancy venues instead of investing in a smart mix of on-site and online interaction, before, during and after a convention.
  2. The communities of participants need to be opened.
    Gatherings are too exclusive, bringing together people of similar functions and status, rather than cutting across hierarchies and experiences;
    Diversity and inclusiveness are neglected in their central relevance to the industry, by gender, but also by culture and background, ignoring the changed demographics in the societies that publishers are catering to;
    Input with data and learnings from other – neighboring or entirely alien – sectors must come as a key ingredient, not some exotic fancy.
  3. Collaboration must become an organizing principle.
    How can industry stakeholders become owners, not customers of the debates and events?
    How can professional educational organizations, industry researchers and practitioners convene interactively?
    How can expectations and targets become guidelines in the curation of debates and events?

I have been running publishing programs in many ways since 1995, as coordinator for Austria as a guest of honor in Frankfurt, head of communications at the Frankfurt Book Fair, international director of BookExpo America, and now for six years as director of the Publishers’ Forum.

Today I am convinced that we must return to the drawing board, to re-design the agora for the book industry from scratch.

You are invited to help kicking off the discussion, and share your thoughts at agora@wischenbart.com – We will post excerpts and summaries here at www.booklab.info as a first step.

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