Panelists debating “The Future of Book Publishing” in the Trustees Room, New York Public Library, from left: Larry Bennett, Baker & Taylor; Paul Morgan, Lulu.com; Jac Garner, Webcrafters Inc.; Elizabeth Scheier, BarnesandNoble.com; Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly; Craig Bauer, Hachette Book Group; Melinda Roberts, The Mommyblog.net; Jeff Mathews, Scholastic Corporation; Jim Robinson, Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
When did the market for printing’s most time-honored product—the book—become so difficult to measure, predict, and stimulate? Where did all of the old norms go? What can the book manufacturing and supply chain do to assure a stable future for the printed book as the tide of e-reading devices continues to rise?
They’re topics of potentially endless debate, but on Tuesday (January 11), a cross-section of experts gamely tried to cover them all in about two hours as panelists in a roundtable on the future of book publishing. Hosted by Kodak, the discussion fittingly took place at the nation’s supreme temple of the printed word: the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.
In that august setting, the panelists tried to make sense of a marketplace that wants more ways of reading books but doesn’t seem inclined to increase the total number of books it consumes. Much was said about e-texts, e-reading devices, and the share of market—still too indistinct to forecast—that they ultimately will claim. The panelists also tackled distribution issues, pricing, the “discoverability” of books in crowded bookselling channels, and the ongoing role of publishers in an industry where even the meaning of “publishing” has become a matter of perception.
Nevertheless, the consensus about printing for books was generally upbeat, even if it conceded that sales of printed books will remain flat at best in many categories, at least in the near term. A bright spot, the panelists agreed, is the efficiency and cost saving that high-speed, high-volume digital inkjet printing systems will bring to book manufacturing, especially in short runs. One of them said that for book producers, the technology would be “as transformative as the move from sheetfed letterpress to web offset 50 years ago.”
The event was part of a series of roundtables that Kodak plans to organize around topics relating to the various print production markets it serves. The company’s Graphic Communications Group makes toner and inkjet systems for commercial printing, publishing, packaging, enterprise, and data-driven applications.
The panelists represented all aspects of the book publishing workflow from authoring and manufacturing to distribution, fulfillment, and retailing. Those seated around the horseshoe in the library’s Trustees Room included Craig Bauer, senior vice president, production and manufacturing, Hachette Book Group; Larry Bennett, vice president, digital print media, Baker & Taylor; Jac Garner, president, Webcrafters Inc.; Jeff Mathews, vice president, corporate strategy, business development and investor relations, Scholastic Corporation; Paul Morgan, global fulfillment manager, Lulu.com; Melinda Roberts, author and self-publisher of Mommy Confidential: Adventures from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood and founder of The MommyBlog.net; Jim Robinson, vice president, operations and administration, Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.; and Elizabeth Scheier, editorial director, digital content, BarnesandNoble.com.
The moderator was Jim Milliot, editorial director, Publishers Weekly. The responses to his opening question about top challenges reflected both the angst and the optimism now prevailing among book industry professionals. Recent statistics give cause for both: R.R. Bowker has reported, for example, that while title output by mainstream publishers has stagnated, growth in books from non-traditional, online publishing services has soared.
Robinson, responsible for producing and distributing 130 million Harlequin books annually in North America, focused on supply chain efficiencies and the company’s move to digital production (2.1 million Harlequin books were printed on digital equipment last year, primarily to support inventory management). Harlequin also offers its front list titles as e-books, and although, according to Robinson, margins on e-books are not as great as margins on printed books, everything counts. “We’d rather sell a printed book than an e-book,” he said, “but we’ll take both.”
As the “finely tuned machine” that produces millions of printed books in the Harry Potter series and other top-selling lines for young readers, said Matthews, Scholastic must take stock of alternative publishing methods and “rethink the digital reading experience for kids and their families.” For Scholastic, he added, the opportunity lies in the fact that “no one thinks kids’ lives are oversaturated with reading just now.”
But that depends on the child, and Roberts said that in her household, the appetite for books—especially printed ones—is strong. Roberts, the panel’s spokesperson for readers as well as for self-publishing authors, said that while she would always be a “Luddite” for print, the portability and convenience of e-books make them “a really nice choice” for book lovers on the go. But paperless publishing apparently hasn’t yet made much of an impression on her three children. They love old-fashioned book fairs, and not one of them, she said, “wants to read a book on an e-device.”
In 2009, Hachette Book Group put a record 130 books on The New York Times bestseller list, where 24 of them climbed to number one. Maintaining that kind of momentum, said Bauer, means producing books “in all of the formats that are permissible” and managing all of the distribution channels through which they go to market. He noted that costs associated with producing e-books have grown “materially,” putting downward pressure on e-book margins.
Scheier said that publishers must get beyond “the text is the text is the text” mentality and “think of all the great stuff that folks can do” with e-books that offer rich, interactive content. She said that people are buying “exponentially more e-books” now that titles with these features are starting to come to market.
Specializing in educational publishing, Webcrafters will add digital printing to its capabilities when it installs a Prosper 5000XL color inkjet web press from Kodak. In Garner’s view, the publishing industry will find Prosper and other high-speed, high-volume inket presses to be “as big a development in the book printing world as we’ve seen in the last 50 years.” One of the most powerful advantages of these presses, Garner said, is their ability to print economically in runs that are too short for offset but longer than would be practical on toner presses. He estimated that about 40% of Webcrafters’ book orders are for quantities that would fall within the 250- to 1,000-copy sweet spot of high-speed inkjet.
Lulu.com, the online production and distribution service that Roberts used to self-publish Mommy Confidential, serves 1.1 million content creators like her through a print-on-demand network consisting of nine print-service providers in 12 countries. The better to help its authors reach their intended niche audiences, Lulu.com is using an “open publishing platform” strategy that lets them create content at specialized web sites (for example, www.beforeigrewup.com) and then aggregate what they have created in books printed to order. Morgan said that Lulu.com envisions creating “thousands” of such sites as entrepreneurial ventures catering to the long-tail demand for self-published works.
With 1.5 million titles available for order, the distributor Baker & Taylor maintains one of the largest in-stock inventories of books, videos, and music in the U.S. The company is the largest distributor of trade books to public and academic libraries, and in these markets, Bennett, the demand for e-versions is growing faster than the demand for conventional print. But printed texts remain the heart of Baker & Taylor’s business, and Bennett agreed that high-speed inkjet will be a “game changer” in many book categories. From 40% to 50% of the titles that Baker & Taylor sends to its academic customers could be produced in this way, Bennett said.
The panelists discussed structural issues in the book supply chain that technology is helping to overcome but has not entirely solved. According to Robinson, because of continuous turmoil in retail channels, publishers’ ability to forecast demand has grown less reliable over the last 10 to 15 years. As a result, he said, the “monster” of overproduced, unsold units that never leave the warehouse is still an unhappy reality. Harlequin does its own digital printing in part to reduce the size of its offset runs—a necessary adjustment, said Robinson, in view of the fact that today, book retailers “expect publishers to be their inventory managers.”
According to Robinson, there has arisen “a big, skittish feeling in the retail market” about print quantities and sell-through rates now that e-books are growing popular as alternatives to print. Morgan agreed that “those big runs are going to become riskier and riskier” as retailers grow increasingly reluctant to deal with big consignments of books. Caught in the middle is the printer, who has to find ways to satisfy changing patterns of demand without sacrificing profit. This is not made easier by the fact, said Garner, that for most book printers, “their prices are where they were 10 or 12 years ago—if they’re fortunate.”
Selling more books ultimately means making people more aware of them, a task complicated by the flood of new titles from non-traditional publishing sources like Lulu.com. Scheier said that in order to cut through the clutter, it’s necessary to “make a product that acts as its own discovery” by adding special value and appeal for readers. Barnes & Noble tries to accomplish this by marketing “life cycle bundles”—packages of related e-texts—and by running at-retail promotions that offer, for example, one hour of free e-browsing to anyone who brings his or her Nook e-reader into the store. Another awareness-builder, said Scheier, is the Barnes & Noble Unbound blog, an online community for readers.
Some industry observers have predicted a diminished role for mainstream publishers now that web-based, on-demand publishing services let authors bring their own books to market. Scheier isn’t one of them. Although some best-selling authors might have the resources and the readership to go it alone, she said, writers who are less well known will continue to rely on publishers for the kinds of assistance that only publishing professionals can provide.
Roberts seconded the thought when she mentioned that a publisher has encouraged her to write sequels to Mommy Confidential, a compilation of essays from her blog. Doing a follow-up would be a wonderful project, said the author, but for the fact that “I have nobody to support me while I write it”—a reminder that writers still need publishers and their advances to see them through the lean times of creation.
Asked to say what comes next for the book trade, the panelists took cautious note of obstacles ahead. The continuing loss of retail outlets is a serious concern. “If Borders does close, it will be a disaster for everyone,” said Scheier, reflecting doubts about the bookstore chain’s survivability in the face of heavy losses and mounting debts.
Matthews said that publishers of books for young readers can “aspire” to better sales and that Scholastic expects the market to “continue to grow modestly.” Bauer reminded textbook publishers that with the budgets of 46 states in deficit, public spending on some categories of educational material is bound to be impacted.
Wait-and-see seemed to be the predominant mood as the panel adjourned. Given the pace of change that book publishers will have to deal with in the near future, “we will be happy if we are flat three years from now,” Robinson said.