8 questions for Joel Naoum [INTERVIEW]

Joel Naoum
Joel Naoum, newly appointed publisher of Pan Macmillan Australia’s digital-only imprint Momentum, author of The Smell of Books blog and best thing to come out of Australia since Vegemite (that’s a compliment) recently arrived in London as winner of the Unwin Fellowship.
Felice Howden interviews him about his experience with digital publishing and what the future might hold for Momentum Books.

1. You have a background in editorial. How is it you came to get involved in digital publishing?

To a large extent it’s luck and good timing, although I have always been very interested in digital books. When I went for my first job at Pan Macmillan I had been reading books on my Palm for years, and I pursued every opportunity to explore digital experiments in-house at Pan. It wasn’t until I started blogging that I had the chance to develop some ideas and explore others outside the day-to-day editorial work of a big publishing house. The blog helped get me the Unwin Fellowship, and gave me a platform to speak on panels at a few publishing and editorial events. There was no plan or ulterior motive to any of that, though, so when I was asked to be the publisher for the digital-only imprint they wanted to launch, I was absolutely stunned and completely over the moon. It’s pretty much my dream job – and one of the best jobs in Australian publishing.

2. How do you imagine the Momentum list will differ from Pan Macmillan’s printed list in the long-term?

In the long term I doubt it will differ too much. Pan Macmillan Australia has a very strong local list, and we’ve always been good at finding and developing authors who go on to build large audiences. Given Momentum’s model, I suspect that we’ll initially be focusing on new authors and experimental work, but as ebooks become a bigger proportion of overall sales I doubt that digital will really be considered in different terms to traditional print.

3. Many authors and producers are still giving the digital part of their content away for free as a subsidy for the printed material. Do you think you consumers are ready to invest in non-physical products, or enough to support an entire imprint?

I think authors who give their books away for free are only doing so for publicity – either for themselves, their print book or for some other agenda. It can be a good strategy, but it’s not because digital books lack value. All evidence seems to point to the fact that people are willing to spend money – and lots of it – on intangible, digital books. Digital sales are already exceeding 20% of overall book sales in the US for most major publishers, and the UK will be there within twelve months. That is millions of dollars. Momentum will be a global imprint, publishing books into every English-speaking market internationally. If we don’t make the business profitable, it won’t be because people don’t want to pay money for digital books.

4. Digital only publication isn’t necessarily the first thing on every publisher’s mind at the moment. Do you think the separation of print and digital is important for publishing houses’ survival?

No, not at all. I hesitate to say there’s a single strategy for publishing houses to survive, but I tend to think integrating digital into most aspects of the business will be part of it. Things are changing radically at the moment and the traditional business is under threat. I don’t think the solution, however, is to separate the most profitable part of the business (print) from the only part of the business that’s showing significant growth (digital). Momentum isn’t about separating digital publishing from the rest of Pan Macmillan. Pan has its own digital program, which is one of the most progressive in the country. Momentum’s strategic role is to experiment with new models and new ideas without undermining the primary business of Pan Macmillan, which includes ebooks.

5. What’s the biggest challenge you think you’re going to face with a project like Momentum?

Picking a single one? That’s tough! I think it’ll probably be the same one everyone in a new, exciting job faces – not enough time to try everything I want to try.

6. You’ve been investigating the UK publishing industry over the past few months as part of the Unwin Trust Fellowship. What’s the main area of difference you have felt between the state of the Australian and UK publishing industries since coming to London?

The biggest difference is the market. The global ebook market seems to go through exponential growth every Christmas. The US is a year or so ahead of the UK, and the UK is a year or so ahead of Australia. Because they’re making more money from digital they can afford to invest more in staff and resources and that gives them more room to experiment. That doesn’t mean attitudes towards digital are particularly different. There are still plenty of unbelievers.

In the print world, they’re facing retail sales shifting online, just like us, but they haven’t had to contend with one of their biggest chains suddenly going under, REDgroup style.

7. What’s the most exciting digital publishing initiative you’ve seen recently?

The most exciting and the most industry-changing initiative I’m aware of is the launch of EPUB3. Finally we’re approaching a format that will push digital books beyond a shoddy facsimile of their paper cousins. EPUB3 also finally brings a standardised ebook format to the rest of the (non-English-speaking) world.

I’m also quite excited by Worldreader, a charitable initiative to get e-readers into the hands of school children in poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa. Getting books into the hands of more people than ever before is what I think e-reading is all about. (Their website is: http://www.worldreader.org/).

8. What’s your favourite thing about digital reading?

I’ll go with a variation on a theme. Digital reading carries with it the promise of more reading for more people far more cheaply and easily than ever before. For most of the history of book reading, a small proportion of rich people have done most of the reading, writing and publishing. As e-readers get cheaper it’ll be that much easier for everyone else to participate. It’s a challenge for a traditional publisher, sure, but it’s a fantastic thing for the rest of the world.

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