Hanging out with Publishers

By Kate Sheehan |

I've been fortunate enough to attend two publishing conferences recently. Digital Book World and Tools of Change both focus on ebooks and the publishing industry, which, like libraries, is experiencing tupheaval as ebooks grow in popularity. As a side note, that growth may be slowing - The Book Industry Study Group and Bowker found that ebook sales for the end of 2011 (but pre-holidays) were growing, but not in the exponential pattern we've come to expect. Both Kelly Gallagher of RR Bowker and Len Vlahos of BISG were quick to point out that we don't know what this change in growth pattern means - it could be nothing, a temporary blip, or it could signal a shift in the ebook market. 

Nonetheless, publishing is also reeling from the changes that ebooks have wrought. Like libraries, publishers face readers' changing consumption habits, new expectations for access, and uncertainty about how this will play out over the next several years. Unlike libraries, publishers must also contend with production issues (it seemed like most of the vendors at these conferences were selling "digital workflow" products) and changing ebook standards. As publishers are expanding what kinds of books they sell digitally, fixed size books, with consistent layouts are becoming an issue. I was surprised to learn that publishers might produce a different version of an interactive or graphics-heavy epub for each e-reader they wish to sell it for. Still, most publishers will say that they wish to remain format-agnostic. That is, they are equally happy to sell a print book or an ebook. 


A number of the sessions I attended spent some time encouraging publishers to make contact with their readers. The traditional publishing way of thinking has been book-oriented, creating marketing plans for one title at a time. Now, the audiences were encouraged to seek out the communities around genres and sub genres and learn as much as possible about those readers. "Hmmm…" you might be saying to yourself right about now, "that sounds like something libraries know kind of a lot about." Several presenters touched on the need for data about readers, including Michael Tamblyn of Kobo, who presented at Tools of Change about nonfiction ebooks

Fiction is much more popular than nonfiction in ebooks. Tamblyn brought up several factors:

  • far more romance novels are being read digitally in proportion to what's being read in print (and it's worth noting here that at Digital Book World, keynoters from AllRomance and several romance imprints emphasized the connection that romance publishers have with their audience);
  • there's a gift economy in children's books;
  • reference books or anything that can be easily replicated by looking online don't do as well in ebook form;
  • and cookbooks not only are popular as gifts, but are also the kinds of books that people like to have as physical artifacts.

Books that do well in ebook form are those with narrative, those that provide an experience, Tamblyn said. He encouraged publishers to think about repackaging content - small collections of recipes built around a theme or target audience would do better than a celebrity chef's ebook. 

At the Tools of Change panel on the future of libraries, Tim Coates said explicitly that publishers could work closely with libraries to get reading data, and he added that publishers probably need public libraries more than libraries need publishers. So, what about that data? Library Journal's Barbara Genco gave a keynote presentation at Tools of Change about LJ's Patron Profiles, a report that LJ and Bowker produced about public library patrons. They're lending hard data to librarian's anecdotal evidence that library users are also heavy book buyers and they use the library for discovery and to take chances on new authors and genres that they go on to spend money on. Libraries were mentioned repeatedly at both conferences as the remaining book showrooms in most communities - not every town has a bookstore, but most have a library. 

This brings me to the cognitive dissonance I experienced at these conferences. People who work in publishing love libraries. They have all the wonderful warm fuzzy feelings that many of us have about beloved public institutions. They feel that libraries are an important civic space. Many even think that libraries help sales, if not as directly as Patron Profiles shows, then by creating readers in the children's room. Their affinity, however, is not leading to library access to ebooks. The shared love of the library does not multiply across the industry, but, in true gestalt fashion, becomes something different at the macro level. 


As Karen Schneider said in her latest post about ebooks, "we need some serious theory at work for us." We also need more data. I saw so many opportunities for libraries to bring wisdom and experience to the reading ecology table. Publishers are interested in verticalization - in reaching out to communities of readers. We're half way there. We know our communities, we know our patrons. What we don't do is collect data on them, and that's where things get squicky. We don't want to collect identifiable data on our patrons, and we know that even anonymized data can be dangerous.


The safest route might be to tout our expertise and our knowledge of what and how people read. But that hasn't really been working well for us. I'm interested to see how projects like LibraryCloud develop. Aggregated, anonymized data is growing ever more popular in library applications, as discovery layers add recommendations and autocomplete search tools. We're cautiously approaching some very basic uses of the data we have for our own purposes. Could we leverage that kind of data to work with publishers? (Please note that this is a genuine question - we may be collectively more inclined to use our data in public projects, not as a bargaining chip.) Warm fuzzies haven't proven to be much of a carrot, our stick supply is low, but we could be sitting on the mother of all carrots - lots and lots of data. We may know publishing's customers better than they do. We just need to prove it.