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The next 5 years of publishing: Thea James interview

In the run up to Publishing: the next 5 years, BookMachine will be featuring a number of opinions about what might be next for the industry. Here Kristina Radke (BookMachine host) interviews Thea James, speaker at BookMachine NYC.

1. What was the news-of-the-day in publishing when you first started working in the industry?

I started working in publishing originally through The Book Smugglers in 2007/2008—back when there were still Borders bookstores, the first generation kindle had just been released, and book blogs were a growing but uncertain quantity. The news of that day, from my perspective as a book blogger and print periodical reviewer (Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review), was the overall industry disbelief that anything digital could seriously disrupt the industry. Blogs were hobbies and not part of the publishing industry-proper, the kindle could never accomplish the type of immersive reading experience nor generate the type of sales numbers that a print book could, and though Borders was experiencing extremely shaky financial footing, there was a general rosy hope that they would be ok. I started working professionally, for my day job, at a publisher in 2010 while attending NYU for my M.S. in Digital Publishing—ebooks were a much more vital part of the industry at that point, and a huge point of contention between publishers and e-retailers. In particular, this was the year of the iPad’s debut, of the birth of the agency pricing ebook model for publishers, and the showdown between Big Six publishing, Amazon, and Apple.

2. What do you think has been the biggest disruptor to the industry since 2010?

The introduction and proliferation of devices that display and support ebooks—including dedicated e-readers (especially in 2010, if they’ve now lost some of their former luster), tablets, and smartphones—have been the largest disruptor to the industry over the past five years. The accessibility, affordability, and prevalence of these devices ignited widespread consumption of ebooks, the customers consume content, and have dramatically changed the way that publishers acquire, launch, and price their books. Dedicated e-readers started their dramatic upward trajectory in 2010 with key device releases from Amazon (Kindle 3rd gen), B&N (NOOK and NOOK SimpleTouch), Kobo, and Sony. Over the next two years, device shipments worldwide continued to grow at incredible multipliers until tapering off in 2012-2013. The iPad’s debut in 2010—quickly followed by a number of other tablet computers from different manufacturers and retailers—introduced a new ebook retailer in iBooks (then the iBookstore), new pricing model for ebooks, as well as new publisher capability to create enhanced ebook, fixed-layout ebook, and app content. While the post-iPad launch developments dramatically changed the industry and the players in the e-retail space, revenue streams have been on the smaller side both in terms of iBooks’ overall market share (Amazon remains the dominant ebook retailer for most publishers), and in terms of return on investment for enhanced ebooks or publisher apps (beautiful, but costly). Smartphones are also counted in this device movement—and may prove to be the most significant disruptor to publishing yet, over the next five years. Because of these widespread devices, readers have many easy, cheap, and quick ways to consume books digitally—and publishers have had to acknowledge, understand, and adapt to this new container for their content (and all of the complicated operations, metadata, account relationships, distribution platforms, royalties, and pricing strategies that come with it).

3. What’s the best lesson you learned about the industry when you began the undertaking to become a digital-first publisher with The Book Smugglers?

I have a unique position as someone both inside and outside of the traditional publishing ecosystem. As a blogger and book reviewer for online publications, I’ve long learned that some of the most important things while building a platform are to set goals, to understand your audience, and be genuine. On the professional publishing side, I have learned that publishers are not very good at forging consumer relationships or building consumer-facing platforms. Some traditional publishers may not even realize that they need to start forming direct customer relationships and market to that audience, as opposed to forming strategies that solely reach booksellers or trade media journalists. In other words: publishers are very good at B2B relationships, but not so good at D2C relationships. When Ana Grilo and I started Book Smugglers Publishing in 2014, it was a planned and carefully considered business goal. We already had the direct audience of readers, amassed over six years of book blogging, and we already understood our audience—the types of stories they liked, the gaps in the marketplace that BSP would try to address.

4. What’s the “next big thing” that you/publishers are looking toward?

In my role at Workman Publishing, I oversee digital operations, including the implementation and smooth-running of our title management system and metadata, all web-based operations and systems, as well as digital product creation, distribution, and analysis. One of the things I love so much about Workman—one of the largest independent publishers in the United States—is the desire to experiment, particularly where distribution platforms and new business models are involved. Workman has always sold ebooks into libraries, through distributors like Overdrive and 3M but also directly to library systems and consortia that are forming their own digital tools. Workman also has been in subscription services from the beginning, as one of the original launch partners with Oyster and Scribd as they brought their Netflix-style model to market. Through different platforms, we have experimented with different payment models, access models, and price promotions. In order to do any of this successfully, we need to have the right systems—from both a metadata distribution and reporting analytics perspective—in place. All that is a long way of saying that I think the next big thing for publishers is continued platform experimentation (with a careful eye towards measuring the success or viability of those platforms with an analytical approach). I don’t think there’s any one model or disruptor we can point to and say that it will be the next single thing that will radically redefine publishing by introducing an entirely new product container (e.g. ebooks)—but I do think that a healthy attitude towards controlled experimentation with many different startups, platforms, and business models will help publishers better understand the way the consumer market is finding, reading, and making purchasing decisions regarding books in any format.

5. Give us one prediction about the next 5 years in book publishing.

When I talked about the major disruptor to publishing over the past 5 years, I argued that the proliferation of devices (e-readers, tablets, smartphones) was key. Dedicated e-readers have declined over the past few years, as has tablet adoption, but smartphones have only grown in use.  According to a Pew Research Center study from April 2015, 64% of U.S. adults own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in 2011. The biggest shift for publishers now is the fact that users are consuming an increasing majority of their media (books, movies, tv shows, websites) on mobile devices. People browse differently now. They read differently now. They communicate differently now, from basic email accessibility to social media platform explosions and the evolution of facebook, twitter, instagram, snapchat, etc. The proliferation of smartphones, moreso than straight e-readers or even larger tablets, informs everything—purchasing decisions, marketing campaigns, advertising strategies, basic website design (“mobile first!” is a rallying cry you’ll hear at any marketing and development convention or panel). The challenge will continue for years to come as the publishing industry grapples for customer attention and changes in consumer behavior—how do we create, market and sell content to consumers now? My prediction is that publishers will have to adjust their publishing programs and strategies accordingly. – Join Thea at ‘Publishing: the next 5 years’ in NYC.

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Book review, BookMachine NYC, digital publishing, future of publishing, ipad, Thea James

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