Annual General Meeting and Publishers’ Question Time

Posted on March 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

The atrium at Penguin’s head office was packed for the SYP’s publisher’s question time and AGM 2010. Our speakers for the evening were:

Jake Lingwood – publisher for Ebury
Anna Lewis – Co-founder of
Bobby Nayyar – MD of Glasshouse Books
Clive Stanhope – MD of CSA Word
Jonathan Ruppin – Web Editor or W&G Foyle Ltd and author of The Bookseller’s Paperback Preview.
The event was chaired by Trevor Dolby, Publisher at Preface Publishing.

Guests were invited to submit their questions in advance, and a selection of the most thought-provoking and topical were presented to the panel on the night. Some of the highlights of the discussion are presented below:

Will e-readers complement physical books, or replace them?
Jonathan: I can’t see them replacing the physical book, although perhaps in future centuries. While they’re an interesting development, I’d say they’re an addition: they’re just another way to read books.

Bobby: It will and it won’t. It’ll be big in academic books, which can be very heavy. The education sector will benefit the most. I had an e-reader when I was working at Little, Brown, but I only used it five times in one year. I think that printing will change; there’ll be more of a move towards print on demand technology.

Anna: So far, e-readers are devices in their infancy. The iPad might change this. There isn’t a device yet which makes it easier to read e-books than a physical book. Books might become a luxury item if the right device is developed, and it can deliver content in a more user-friendly way.

Jake: As a publisher, it’s not really that important – content will still be needed. But the business side and the people selling books will have to be ready for major changes that might happen. What is relevant is what will happen next. We have to ensure it doesn’t undermine our current business model.

Clive: What will people put on their shelves? I have used an e-reader when I’ve been on holiday, as it doesn’t weight very much. But e-readers won’t take over from books. It will go slower than audio, where after five years, only 10% or the market is made up of downloads as opposed to physical sales.

Do you think that the impact of the recession on publishing is starting to improve?
Jonathan: Foyles has just smashed its sales record. People are considering value for money, picking and choosing what they buy. Quality is starting to come through as a result of this. Those who are suffering will find that it’s probably because the product isn’t up to what the market wants.

Bobby: What I do is a response to the problems the recession has thrown up. At Glasshouse Books, we give away copies online, linked to print on demand and supported by advertising. A small publisher could sell 1000 books and break even. There’s a resurgence of small publishers – they’re about ideas.

Anna: With print on demand technology and digital platforms, the link to the customer is more immediate. There are lots of opportunities; it’s time to look for new, innovative ways of connecting with the reader. The big blockbuster doesn’t work as well in the current climate.

Clive: In the audio sector, physical sales were a little bit up, and download sales were increased, turnover was up by 10%. I’d be more nervous about this year. There’s going to be a change of government, and we don’t know what they’ll do.

Jake: There’s been a lot of talk that non-fiction sales were down by 30% last year, but in truth this was only for one week. They were about 4% down on the previous year, so it’s not a massive shrinkage. The real problem is when a retailer goes into administration. We can’t rely on the supermarkets. Keeping the channels of sale open is the real challenge. Some of the best and most creative thinking comes out of a recession. It’s the most exciting time to be in publishing. It makes for a level playing field.

Should Waterstone’s pile them high and sell them cheap, or go back to being a local bookseller?

Clive: Waterstone’s are picking up the Smith’s model and going for mass market fiction. They need the range, nicely laid out. They have to compete by stocking the range, not doing the same as everyone else.

Jake: They can’t compete with Amazon on range. Lots of people are in the habit of buying online. If I were Waterstone’s, I would go online with everything. I don’t like the idea of ‘piling high’ – this just spells returns to me.

Jonathan: It does feel at the moment as if you have 3 for 2s in front of you, and they may as well have a painting behind them. The range is terrible. Amazon do have range, but they need to sort out their search options. The whole book trade needs to survive, unless we want the whole trade to go online. Waterstone’s have to make buying a pleasurable experience for people.

Anna: Tesco and Amazon are using books as loss-leaders. They don’t need to make a profit from them as they sell other things. This puts bookshops in a difficult position. And Tesco are now making films from bestsellers.

Bobby: The problem with Amazon is that you can’t browse. Look inside doesn’t replace the experience of physically buying. The bugbear with Waterstone’s is centralised buying. Ottakers used to be good, but then Waterstone’s took over and moved all the buying to Brentford. Customer service is important, but the staff don’t all have the product knowledge. The way Waterstone’s can differentiate themselves from Amazon is with their people.

Jake: People go to Waterstone’s to browse, and then go home and buy on Amazon, so they need to push the online side.

Are digital developments, such as social networking, a challenge to the dominance of brand name authors?

Anna: It means you can immediately connect with people who could be your audience, and enables you to build your own brand. The power of celebrity is fairly awesome once it is established, and that won’t go away, but this means that smaller authors will be able to have a bigger presence without a massive budget.

Clive: It will kickstart interest, but then the big companies will pick up the authors anyway.

Bobby: It’s about connecting with people and giving them information. The personal touch might not drive sales, but it shows that the author cares about their fans. In terms of creating a bestseller, I’m not sure it will be effective, but in terms of maintaining a profile, it’s good.

Jonathan: Lots of people are tweeting about Foyles at the moment. We’re about to start tweeting ourselves, and have had a Facebook page for a while. It gives customers a sense of ownership, and a bit more access to authors and people working in the industry. I’m not sure of any books that have done well on the basis of this sort of thing alone, though.

Jake: Facebook is inward-looking. You can choose to deal with the stuff you want to deal with. Twitter is like millions of channels you can turn on or off. It will help more small projects to get off the ground. But we’ll still need bestsellers, and that’s where the big publishers come in.

Publishing is still primarily a white, middle-class profession. How is diversity monitoring being used to address this?

Jake: Our group takes diversity very seriously. The recent Ebury ad in the Guardian for a commissioning editor, stating that no experience was necessary, caused lots of comment. But publishing is not diverse enough, and lots of people recognise this. But there is a stuffy old guard who want everything to stay the same. It takes a certain type of talent to spot ideas and turn them into products that people want to buy.

Bobby: I think that ad was valid for that publishing house. As an employer, you want people who like your products. The tricky thing is how you get into publishing. For reasons of economy, salaries are low. It’s fine to open the door, but you have to let people know that it is open. No one is making sure that people are let in. With recruitment, you have to let at least ten people have the chance. You might end up with the person you first thought was right for the job, but you have to let them run the race or you won’t know you have the right person.

Clive: I feel guilty about this, but audio books are aimed directly at the middle class. We’ve advertised, we’ve interviewed – I’m not sure what else we should do. As with any competitive industry, it is grossly unfair.

Anna: Connections play a large part of any job. In terms of interning – if you’re going to work for anyone to work for free, maybe it’s better to work for yourself.

Jonathan: In retail, we have less of an issue with diversity. It’s less well-renumerated and less experience is needed. Foyles has the only non-white CEO of any book trade company. There is an issue though. Everybody has to recognise that it is very competitive.

Will the new TV Book Club have the same impact on book sales as the Richard and Judy book club?

Jake: I think it has some TV format issues to deal with.

Jonathan: It had an instant impact on sales, but it’ not clear yet whether it has any relation to specific programme.

Jake: I think it will stick around and continue.

Bobby: I worked on The Little Stranger. It works because of the stickers. I saw a copy of it recently with about five stickers on it. You couldn’t even see who had written it.

Jake: As an industry, it’s all we’ve got. We should make the most of it.

Bobby: It’s worrying though, as it means that people outside of the industry are controlling books.

Clive: I think it’s rubbish. There’s no one on there with any weight or credentials.

Anna: It’s about making things accessible. As a publisher, you want people who know a lot about books reviewing, but what if the audience doesn’t really care?

Jonathan: I think it needs someone with some gravitas to hold it together. And how do you get people to come back and read something else by these authors? It does bring in a wide range of books though. There is no way that a book like Cloud Atlas would have been such a bestseller without it. This time, the list is very safe, but it is of benefit to the industry overall.

Will writers of the future even need publishers, or will publishing houses become dispensible?

Jake: Publishers bring an enormous amount to the equation. They select books, and add professionalism and quality. Marketing will be a massively important function in the future. People forget this. You need to get yourself heard, and you need muscle to do this. There are books that go unedited, but there aren’t many of them. Editors bring a huge amount to the table in terms of bringing something to the table that is right.

Anna: Yes, publishers add a lot of value some of the time. But it’s not the right route for every book. Overheads are fairly high, and there are other methods for selecting and pushing a book to the forefront, such as publishing platforms, where authors can get editorial input not from a publishing house. For books with increasingly smaller markets, such as those on web developing, there’s no need.

Clive: Writers are brilliant, creative people, but they need a lot of help. I would like to see a breakdown of the conglomerates. It won’t happen though.

Bobby: The problem is in the middle. What may happen is that the middle will wane, and the tiny and big publishers will continue. Self-publishing will become more prevalent. On the Internet, there are no territories.

Jonathan: Random House is one step ahead of the others in terms of marketing. Self-publishing will become part of it – 10% of Britons say their ideal job in to be an author, and we may become overwhelmed with stuff that is not very good at all. Retailers have to make sure they play their part.