It’s been an exciting few days in the book publishing world.
First up, the announcement that the Man Booker Prize winner – the top literary prize awarded in the UK – was Hilary Mantel, for her historical novel Wolf Hall. The Bookseller on Wednesday reported a total of 22,000 copies sold of the hardback since the shortlist was released in July, a temporary rebuttal to widespread belief that the hardback format is dead.
This was the bookies’ favourite, but not, it would seem, the same for all the judges. Whatever the debate, it is still a popular winner from a solid shortlist. And it inspired me to purchase the whole lot for Christmas presents earlier this week (I know, it’s a little sad to be doing Christmas shopping in October).
The ebook is also available with the same RRP as the print edition. Which leads me to the next piece of news: Wednesday’s release of the global wireless Kindle from Amazon.com. This week has been expensive. I’ve got a Kindle on order as well.
The industry has responded positively, indicating that we are further along the path to widespread availability (although with questionable affordability) of handheld devices opening up the market for ebooks, even if it isn’t quite an “iPod” moment.
These two bits of news got me thinking about how things have changed. Those that know me will remember my earlier career at Routledge – one of the best known humanities and social science academic publishers. I remember ebooks being pioneered there late in the 90s and early 00s. There was an acknowledgment that it had to be done for the future of the academic market as institutions moved towards higher levels of PC access for students and consumption of content changed in their libraries and colleges.
Fast forward a few years and the “e”-volution is with trade book publishers. I’ve just bought a Kindle and the winner of the Booker Prize is available in an ebook edition, but what are the changes to the skillsets publishers need to produce this multi-format product range?
Rights teams need the knowledge and awareness of the different formats to negotiate author contracts. Processes and systems may in principle be the same: you are still commissioning the title and understanding what might inspire readers, but editors need to understand a wider variety of commercial, multi-platform opportunities. This might involve working in partnership with third party suppliers: commissioning additional audio, computer graphics or video content, for example. Do these activities blur the boundaries between traditional editorial and marketing roles?
Internal processes require non-traditional technical skills for in house editorial and production for data transfer or file formatting. The production process may be retained in-house, requiring one set of skills or it might be outsourced in the UK or overseas, requiring another set of project and supplier management skills. You can proofread on screen. Your production process may never see a sheet of paper printed until the final book is produced (are the days of reams of paper annotated in coloured ink and proofreader tabs completely gone?) You no longer just send a book to print, but export the file in various formats to a number of suppliers for digital or print outputs.
Marketing teams will be involved early on, preparing data files to submit to bibligraphic companies (it was paper forms in my day) and working with the author on blogs, wikis, Facebook and Twitter sites – building a community and author brand loyalty. Again, a mix of traditional marketing and modern technical skills and knowledge.
The sales teams still need to sell: key account management, closing the deal and understanding your customers’ needs are core skills. However, some of the customers have changed. With the supply chain moving online for print and digital products, there are a myriad of options and opportunities. Making the most of these, managing the big players while spotting new opportunities with a wider product range and more direct contact with end consumers becomes even more critical. Some of these challenges are discussed candidly by Paul Rhodes, Head of Digital at the childrens’ publisher Walker Books in an interview for the London Book Fair newsletter
Recent coverage of our Publishing Sector Profile, which summarised what skills publishers told us they needed, reflected a range of views on the diversity of skills issues for the industry. Traditional skills are still needed (you will always need to spot a winning piece of fiction, understand English language to proofread, and so on). But there are a myriad of other challenges that need to be addressed. There ARE new technical skills required. But the changes taking place will expose those publishers who need to develop their strategic skills further – in whichever department – to help monitor, understand and respond to the challenges new platforms, products and changes in consumer behaviour present.
So as the industry heads off to Frankfurt Book Fair, to buy and sell with agents, suppliers and customers from around the world, I’ve got to go and check my credit card bill. As I said, it’s been an exciting week, but rather an expensive one.