Celebrating Polish publisher Sonia Draga & her 15 years in Krakow – with Jonathan Franzen: Kickoff Poland @BookExpo 2016

Sonia Draga is not simply an independent publisher in Poland. She stands out in today s business of books as someone who gave an old industry an exemplary fresh look. Starting with just one book (a cook book), typesetting it herself, 15 years ago, and broadening the venture into one of Polands leading houses for international fiction since then.

An yet, she is not the only one of her kind. A good week ago, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, we welcomed in the Frankfurt CEO Talks two of her peers, Marcos Pereira of Editorial Sextante in Brazil, and Andrew Wilkins of Profile Books in the UK (more on that soon in this blog – and by the way, these glorious indie publishers even do not know each other in person, so far).

All three share an appetite for good international reading, aka great authors, and the boldness to say: There is plenty of room for new publishers in this industry. Which is an attitude that, frankly, I admire a lot.

In Krakow, I just had spent a full day of multiple conversations, because Poland will be the honorary guest country at the BookExpo America Global Market Forum 2016. BEA, as we call it, will be in Chicago next year which, co-incidentally, is the second largest Polish city, right after Warsaw – and by head count of Polish immigrants from a century and a half, topping Krakow!

(Sidestep: Europeans, watch out for such developments, which provide a strong argument to emphasize the long term perspective when it comes to migration! For Austrians, for instance, Chicagoe is arguably the biggest city of Burgenland, our country s most Eastern province).

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And Jonathan Franzen in all this? He is published in Poland by Sonia, of course, and he was most upbeat, as we shook hands at Sonias party, about BEA this year, where he had held the big opening address.

International book publishing is certainly big in its good spirits, but also a small world.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

Not one prediction about ebooks has been correct so far. Why? A summer rant.

Let’s face the simple truth: Not one prediction about ebooks (as far as I know) has been correct so far:

No, ebooks will NOT go away any time soon. But no, again, they will not replace printed books, not even mass paperbacks, within a decade or so.

Thus far, ebooks have strongly impacted only on some markets: English language (US, UK), and genre fiction (big fiction bestsellers, fantasy, romance, young adult) – and ebooks helped propel self-publishing.

Interestingly, in the various – and very diverse – Non-English markets of Europe, ebooks have stalled early on, in a very different pattern from US or UK. But strangely, they behaved remarkably similar for those niches of genre fiction and blockbuster novels (and found plenty of people downloading those in English, and not, say, in Slovenian or Dutch translations).

Publishers, particularly in Europe, have had their hand in all this, by keeping prices high, and by believing in the gospel of iron cast copyright protection technology (DRM).

Now several of the big companies start learning lesson 01: They abandon hard DRM, and replace it by water marking – to get “rid of a road block” (phrases buchreport, reporting on Holtzbrinck giving up hard DRM for Germany, following suit after Bonnier had decided likewise in June, and a growing number of others before that). In Italy or Scandinavia, hard DRM has had no strong showing from the beginning almost.

My personal list of ebook headaches

Every time I purchase a (non Kindle/Amazon) ebook (because I dislike those walled gardens), I firmly struggle, and hate, the lack of usability on ANY of the major ebook platforms I tend to use. Here are some real life examples:

  • Kobo has (for me) a terrible search engine, as it makes some kind of a difference for me with an Austrian account (as opposed, it seems, to what they have for a German user – argh!!!). Behind that riddle seems to sit a mix of territorial rights and bad meta data – which doesn’t help me a lot, I must say;
  • Ebook.de has a search engine and shop environment which together seem to visualize every step of development and changing partnerships that the platform has had to serve in the past several years – and even getting a title into a bookmark list, instead of the buy basket takes a little adventure in figuring out how, and why, a function changes names along the process;
  • Direct purchases at notably British publishers’ websites often confront the mysterious red lines of territorial rights;
  • Buying a French book teaches you a thorough lesson about how France wants to be different – it works in the end, but you better bring some time, and all your wits and persistence.

I assume you do NOT want me to go on and on and on.

Perhaps I am not the only one who got frustrated. Many a reader may have had enough – and a number has moved over to more easy-to-use piracy offerings. Not necessarily because they want “to steal the book“. But because … well, I do not want to entering guessing either.

Here is my main concern: We simply do not know.

We learn about a drop in ebook sales of 2.5% in the US (AAP StatShot, quoted in Publishers Weekly). But what does this mean? Again a few exemplary thoughts:

We know how unevenly ebook sales are across genres, but also publishers. From Europe, I know that ebooks seem to privilege massively the biggest houses, plus a few more publishers who really drive digital.

In Germany, a few independent houses (Luebbe, Aufbau) report that their ebook revenue share is over 15%. Even in ebook agnostic France, a few romance and erotica specialists claim strong digital sales, and we know that a few blockbuster memoirs found their way well onto readers’ screens, albeit through illegal downloads.

For Germany, or France, we still do not have any meaningful break out numbers, by genre, or monthly developments, but only broad overall figures for, supposedly, all of “trade” or consumer publishing, which are basically meaningless. We do not even know, for the industry, the part that year end holiday sales play, for digital sales. And the same applies to any other EU market aside from the UK.

Which also means that we have no idea whatsoever of the real impact of piracy on (p&e) book sales. We simply don’t know. (Just as a thought experiment: Are illegal sales curbing down mostly niche titles, available on highly proficient illegal platforms, and are particularly harmful to diversity of titles published by those specialist copyright holders? Or  are the mostly a nuisance to blockbuster fiction and their ‘Big Houses‘ publishers? Or is the leakage paramount? We don’t know.)

What I could see in fact, through our research, is a pretty staggering increase in page visits at major piracy sites across European markets, and both their usability as well as the mounting emphasis from these sites (they pretend, seriously, to foster ‘reading culture’) which are obviously well echoed by readers. Not by nerds or hackers, but by the most serious, ambitious page devouring folks!)

We have documented some of this in the Global eBook report 2015, and plan for some updates, notably on pricing and on piracy, for autumn 2015.

But here are already a few anticipating thoughts:

Ebooks are NOT a marginal bug in the book publishing system, as a market share (in Europe) of overall 2, 3 or 4% of all consumer sales might indicate. Ebooks interfere with the entire system, as they impact on a number of very sensitive points, by exercising significant leverage.

Most prominently, they work most directly with all kinds of particularly dedicated consumers who specialize heavily on one niche, who read much more than average, etc.

Second, ebooks set a precedent for many more readers, by bringing the ‘book‘ (that previously ‘special‘ thing) on par with all other media content, which literally trains readers at comparing their pricing as well as the convenience of access, and – very important for the cultural classes – their ‘symbolic status‘, with other formats, other content and media, on which they spend time and money.

Third, when the new ‘user experience‘ with books compares poorly with other stuff, the next exit might be a piracy site.

I made an effort of not mentioning the Amazon factor so far in that lengthy story. But here it enters the stage, unavoidably. The ‘A-impact‘ is perhaps not primarily what Amazon is blamed for, its tax-optimizing habits, or its tough negotiations with publishers over margins. Amazon’s main threat comes probably from their offer of being “the other – who claims to re-invent the future of books and reading, and of all other digital media content anyway. Which is also arguably Amazon’s softest spot: Imagine from how many sides and angles new challengers can – and will! – come in. Amazon’s future is all but secured.

For the old world publishers, who today struggle with the first wave of change, this comes with little relief. But it sure carries a simple lesson:

Ebooks are complicated. They look small, even marginal in many places. But we see how a huge, old dyke at once gets many little leaks, and readers’ attention held back for long by that dyke, is curiously exploring all the other leads around.

Publishers, if they want to survive, and fix their dyke, will better learn the tricks of ebooks quickly. Not for today’s minimal revenue share, or flattening growth curve. But to remain their readers’ best choice tomorrow, again.

Why the protest of authors in the Amazon vs. publishers fight opens a new chapter

With the authors stepping into the arena, the current controversy between Amazon and major publishing groups – so far: Hachette and Bonnier – brings into the debate the fundamental quality it deserves. What we are seeing is in fact a watershed moment in the evolution of the digital economy for cultural content.

In an essay, and manifesto, in Perlentaucher (in German), I argue why this is so important, and why 3 lines of action will be needed to maintain a balanced and diverse ecosystem of writing, publishing (plus distribution) and reading:

  • Assure a fair economic context that does NOT play to the advantage of global players against locals (with the new European tax regimes being a good step in the right direction);
  • Reform and adapt copyright to meet today’s cultural consumer practices, by notably introducing a concept of “fair use“, backed up with transparent compensation for authors and other creators of works;
  • Open and encorage not-for-profit environments for the production and dissemination of those works of art and culture that cannot be sustained commercially under today’s circumstances.

A more detailed English summary will follow here.

Jeff Almighty: Kindle Unlimited is about leveraging access to Amazon’s mega catalogue, and control of the entire value chain.

Kindle Unlimited is not just another subscription offer, but yet another key component in Amazons 2 central strategic lines of action: First of all, to organize access to the world’s largest catalogue for reading (and making $$$ as a collateral benefit – which will never bring significant income for anyone else but the by far strongest player(s) around). And second, this helps very much in the ambition of controling the entire value chain (or more radically: to replace all the other competitors, by one walled empire, defined by Amazon).

In this context, Kindle Unlimited can be huge, because it confronts traditional publishers with nothing less than an altogether new, and radically different, business modell then what used to be the bread and butter for 2 centuries: To sell and buy books one copy at a time. Including all those existing author contracts that, again, compensate the creators with a cut on that old model.

For Amazon, as the aggregator and community hub, it is relatively easy to make that radical switch. For the publishers, and everybody else, this will cause a huge headache. It will ever more benefit only the very few peak bestselling authors (and perhaps the largest publishing giants), and further dilute income, and sustainability for all of the rest.

The momentum of Amazon’s catalogue building, and now the launch for Kindle Unimited reminds me of its behind the scene frenzy before the introduction of the Kindle, back in 2007. Yes, back then, the Bg Six were largely on board, which is not the case now. But re-consider the hardball game with Hachette, or the gossip about talks with Simon & Schuster, in the light of Kindle Unlimted. These confrontations come in handy now, before the backdrop of yet another Amazon controled sales channel, and a huge handle in tightening up the Amazon consumer community – and to show everybody the sign on the wall, which reads: Be careful, and think what it would mean to NOT have your titles prominently featured by us.

Jeff Almighty has a strong run these times. It will require a lot of ingenuity, and cold blood, for everybode else to come up with a good answer to him.

This is what I argue in an essay (in German) about the possibile impact of Kindle Unlimited‘s launch, published by Die Welt today. Podcast (in deutsch, von Deutschlandradio) hier.

Understanding the reader requires not just a direct marketing plan, but listening to the consumers. Thoughts from the buchreport360 seminar.

The website of HarperCollins, one of the Big Five English language publishers, welcomes visitors – with a shop. A feature that could be just normal is currently big news among observers of international book markets. Why so?

While the call that publishers need to communicate directly with consumers has been repeated time and again, little has been done to make such a direct exchange a practical reality, in fact.

Of course, most publishers, big and small, have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, and a growing number of authors want to have their dedicated web presence supported by their publishers. But, many book professionals concede, not very many books find their way into the hands of readers in ways that can really be linked to such (expensive) digital initiatives.

One of the reasons for this shortcoming is that many such efforts are built like a preacher’s pulpit, focusing only on how to get the word out about an author, or a book. The other half of the exercise is missing though: A built in listening post, that allows the publisher, the marketing and communication team, and the author to listen to what the readers have to say.

At a one day seminar last week, branded buchreport360, this was all differnt. Most of the conversation had focused on how to make that return channel a key to the entire exercise. And clearly, selling books direct to consumers – and thereby learning what works, what doesn’t, and how so, exactly – engages the publisher in a much stronger way, and triggers a learning curve that no feedback from booksellers can replace. (And of course, this back link is not created as a re-placement for the booksellers and their wisdom, not at all).

The trick of listening – and not just preaching, or promoting – may be seen as banal. But it entirely re-frames the issue of  both direct-to consumer marketing, and of understanding consumer data by the same move.

This simple, yet powerful insight is what I brought home from  buchreport360 last week, where I had the pleasure to help preparing and moderating some of the sessions,  with, among others, Charlie Redmaine, CEO UK of HarperCollins (and formerly CEO of Pottermore) , Laura Bijelic, head of the reader platform Bookmarks at Random House UK and Dutch book and culture nerd Eppo van Nispen.

One could also add: Opening your shop is not just about selling books. It is as much about inviting your readers to talk to you, and to have someone in your publishing house who is prepared to lend an ear. Simple. But effective indeed.

How 9/11, the economic crisis of 2008 and the Internet conspired to re-invent the business of books in translation. Part01

A summary of the BookExpo America Global Market Forum 2014: Books in Translation. Wanderlust for the Written Word. (Disclosure: The event was curated by Rüdiger Wischenbart for BEA)

Everybody agreed that at once, books in translation found a way out of their obscure niche. But the question as to how, and why, was already widely debated.

It was an incremental process, as we became more cosmopolitan, found Grand Dame of US international publishing, Carol Brown Janeway of Knopf Doubleday, quoting on the late pioneer Alfred Knopf who had introduced her to the magic of books in translation.

It was 9/11, argued translator Esther Allen, as Americans had to find out more, and more truthful accounts on that wide world that they could not grasp, or even less understand, anymore. So paradoxically, that traumatic event had led to new openings, as the wonderful WordsWithoutBorders initiative, whose Susan Harris reported the why and how details.

BEA_Translation_panel

Or was it rather the economic crisis of 2008, asked literary scout Maria Campbell, as people were looking beyond the rim of their plate, for stuff that was – not the least argument – also more affordable than a US star author system that had become more and more unaffordable, in terms of extremely high advances – while a similar international talent.

Also the context is helping, we found out, as authors could socialize internationally, helped by a boom of hugely successful literary festivals in many countries. And even editions of classics became more international, and help their publisher’s bottom line as well, as John Siciliano said, as both Penguin’s editor of Classics, and as the one who had acquired a stunningly bold, and young Swiss writer, Joel Dicker, to introduce him as a new rising star to American readers.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair” is a wildly successful and acclaimed novel launched in the US only the day previous to that debate at the BEA Global Market Forum: Books in Translation.

Co-published initially by a legendary Swiss small press, L’Age d’Homme, together with a tiny Paris boutique publisher, Bernard de Fallois, is the Wunderkind of the season: A 600+ page thriller and a page turner, backed up by intellectual reflections on the art of writing, and in an about-face, a satire of New York’s machinery of buzz around books, star authors and their vanity.

Joel Dicker, age 28, politely explained at the opening panel of the forum how he crafted this piece, and how important it was to him that this book would be both entertaining and light, and yet stand up to big American contemporary classics such as Philip Roth.

Translations are a growth segment in the publishing business, clearly, which is clearly highlighted by the news of a stunning, yet also somehow logical merger, which was broken at the event by Maria Campbell: Two internationally leading literary agencies join forces, to dwell and develop the resulting opportunities. The Spanish agent Carmen Balcells and London based Andrew Wylie have announced that they are joining forces, creating an international agency, called Balcells & Wylie.

Still, these are yet the conventional elements of how books in translation are currently re-invented. The wide range of innovative initiatives will be documented here shortly in a separate post.

Re-Framing the debate on translation: How translated books escape the niche, and lots of new ventures replace old gatekeepers

The debate on translation is old – and not always very forthcoming: Translations of (notably fiction) books are seen as difficult to sell, costly to produce (due to the cost of translation), while translators, for good reasons, complain about the low pay. And translations are only a meager 3 percent in English language markets anyway.

Is this the dull end of the story about the value of diversity? Or isn’t this the perfect starting point to re-frame the debate?

Translated fiction has suddenly exploded – say Stieg Larsson, but also that 100 year old guy. Even in the United Kingdom, translated books are cool, as The Bookseller has told us today: “Sales of translated titles surge“. 

At BookExpo America, we work on that topic for over a year now, and have discovered loads of surprises: Those many many new ventures taking translation – and its dissemination – into their own hands (not waiting for gate keepers). Those many translation grant initiatives, from a wild diversity of organizations and countries – which you can use, without giving up control over editorial. How digital and the internat and social media make communication with spread out, fragmented, highly specialized targed audiences the norm – not a pitfall and pain.

A long catalogue of questions, and solutions, has emerged. Followed by enormous response to our initial invitation:

Join us for the Global Market Forum: Books in Translation. Wanderlust for the written word. (Oh, and this is my personal pleasure: The idea about the “wanderlust” came from my US colleagues – making me happy that Kindergarten and Schlagbaum are not the only German words in English!).

For the details, find this nice summary from The Bean – by BEA director Steven Rosato. Or come and debate with us Books in Translation, next week, in New York.

The Weltbild insolvency – Germany is living through its Borders incident

Serious shock waves have been triggered by the announcement of Weltbild filing for insolveny a week ago. The company is one of the largest retailers of books and other media in Europe. Together with Munich based Hugendubel, Weltbild controls Germany’s second largest book chain (behind Thalia), and operates the second largest online platform for books, behind Amazon, and it is a key partner, together with its rival Thalia, of the anti-Amazon ebook Alliance Tolino.

While details of the insolvency and rescue plan may not be clear before March of this year, many observers bet on the heterogenous group’s assets being striped, with the online business forming the core of the valuable pieces to be offered for sale to an investor, while many of the 300 brick and mortar outlets may be doomed.

While initial comments had a tendency to downplay the overall impact on Germany’s book and publishing market, I would disagree, and rather expect this to be the “Borders incident” for what used to be Europe’s most stable book market. It will shake the Tolino alliance, and thus other initiatives aiming at building local alternatives to the expansion of global players, while Amazon is the likely winner, grabbing much of the market share that Weltbild has grown over the past years, much of it coming from new customer groups rather than from the traditionally conservative book buyers. Also the Weltbild crash must be viewed in line with similar havoc among big book (and media) chains in France (Chapitre, Virgin) or the Netherlands (Selexyz,  Polare).

Find my analysis with more detail at Publishers Weekly here.

Suhrkamp: Die Zahlen hinter der Soap

Natürlich sind die meisten Geschäftszahlen nicht öffentlich, was es schwer macht, sachlich genauer einzuordnen, welche Kräfte und Dynamiken die Causa Suhrkamp tatsächlich bewegen. Denn es ist unwahrscheinlich, dass sich alles nur um jenes Degen-Drama aus schöner Erbin und forschem Parvenü dreht, wie es uns die Berichterstattung vorzumachen versucht. Aber einiges an Eckzahlen gibt es, und erlaubt eine kühlere Bilanz. Der Versuch nachzurechnen ist nachzulesen bei Perlentaucher und im buchreport.

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