Thursday, August 30, 2007

Not Waving but Drowning...

I read with great interest Fred Newman’s piece on Bookselling in the Digital era which was featured in Publishing News this week. Many of the points made where very valid and much of the logic of his overall premise is correct – bookselling is changing - not because books are changing, or because publishers are changing but because the consumer and what they expect and want is changing. This is an extra challenge in a market that has a many to many supply chain, where titles are often unique in there relationship to the channel and in market which has so much product.

We therefore return to the digital role for Booksellers, or bookselling in the digital era? Are they the same or different? Is there a digital role for booksellers, or do they merely have to adapt how they sell physical titles within a digital environment? The Brave New World report clearly and resolutely stated the case for the inclusion of the existing channel in the digital market. It argued for consumer research and trend analysis and importantly it talked about co-operation and a collaborative approach. So why are we still going over old ground and a case that was made 12 months ago? Maybe it because, like the Supply Chain 10 years earlier, many listened, many agreed, but then went about their own exclusive agendas. The publishers today are far from co-operating let alone collaborating. If anything it’s like the ‘wild west’ with everyone trying to outsmart each other whilst smiling and exchanging platitudes. The retailers know how to retail to the mass market but in the main don’t have direct marketing skills and services let alone digital capabilities.

Publishers face significant challenges as ebooks, audiobook downloads, podcasts and blogs are merely the delivery mechanisms. They need to digitise their processes – how they acquire rights, develop, produce, promote, market and finally sell them. It is about changing processes, relationships and rights. Merely trying to increase margin and disintermediate the retailer and channel will not work.

In a world of confusion, the consumer tends to lead and like water find the route of least resistance, Amazon, Google etc. The music industry faced different challenges, but was equally led astray. Look where it is now – would you invest in EMI? All media sectors are facing digital challenges and none are of the woods yet.

Someone once ask why their business had failed even though they had listened, trained staff and responded? The answer given was – You can teach someone to swim but you can’t stop them from drowning, however, the chance of them drowning without any swimming lessons is far greater. Today the industry has to learn to work together, set out clear ‘quick wins’ and adopt an inclusive approach to digitisation. This will not guarantee survival. There is no silver bullet. It is not just booksellers that are at risk but everyone between the author and the reader.