The suggestion that it may be OK for us to be "pervy for paper," remaining unduly wedded to the destruction of trees in an age of almost infinite electronic storage capacity and instantaneous internet availability, came from Cory Doctorow, one of the stellar collection of speakers at the "UnBound" conference last Thursday. Initiated and sponsored by Google, and subtitled "Advancing Book Publishing in a Digital World" this day-long event drew a crowd of almost 300 book people to the NYPL's Celeste Barton auditorium. Whatever the commercial or legal motivations of Google in wooing New York's publishing community, the experience itself was unique and valuable. Few in the publishing community have the deep pockets necessary for such an in-demand cast of speakers as Doctorow, Seth Godin (marketeer and author of best-selling business books), Chris Anderson (Editor of Wired), and Tim O'Reilly (visionary Founder of O'Reilly Media), and there are fewer still events where publishers from trade giants like Random House and Pearson would mingle on an equal footing with scholarly publishers large and, like me, very small.
The message that we have moved beyond the "death of the book" debate to a more nuanced understanding of the complementary role of paper and electronic media was echoed by a number of speakers. "The world we are building is one of print and online where one stimulates the other," said David Worlock, an early pioneer in electronic publishing and now Chairman of Electronic Publishing Services (EPS). While reference works and specialized data sources had found electronic delivery a natural environment, the physical book had proved itself as the logical format in which to read 100,000 words of narrative. Cory Doctorow spoke of the "deep emotional attachment to the codex" readers felt, reminding the listeners that "long form narrative has completely different rhythms" from recipe collections or self-help manuals. E-books were, in the main, "useless expressions in trying to bridge format and delivery" (Worlock again) and the primary way in which the devices which had already been bought by early adopters would probably be used were for listening to audio books (a market already growing explosively in the age of the MP3 player).
So what about publishers, the other presumed victims of "death of the book" evangelists? A trembling crowd cringed as Seth Godin warned that this was the time of judgment. By our actions in the next few years, publishers as planetary bodies could either move toward the center of the solar system or become, like Pluto, "downgraded." Angela D'Agostino, Vice-President of Bowker, presented a well selected group of statistical slides that reinforced this message in less emotional ways: the four-fold growth in ISBN registrations logged by Bowker in the last 10 years (62,039 in 1995 to 225,000 in 2005) was driven by a huge expansion in the number of publishers, from around 6,000 in 1995 to 11,000 in 2005. Of these, Ms. D'Agostino noted, 90% were self-publishers taking advantage of services like iUniverse and Lulu.com that used Print-on-Demand and wholesaler-power to bypass the traditional houses.
One consequence of the new channels which online publishing services offered was that the "latent demand for diversity" could be expressed, according to Chris Anderson, Wired's Editor-in-Chief and exponent of the "long tail" hypothesis. He backed up the powerful visuals of his 80:20 distribution curve with some figures: of 41,139 distinct ISBNs registered in 2004 by Neilsen Bookscan for new hardcover publications/release, 26,330 had sold fewer than 99 copies (i.e., 63% of the total sample). 94% of the total sold less than 5,000 copies, with the "average book" selling 500 copies a year. In other words, a market previously distorted by physical distribution bottlenecks and now revealed through "the infinite shelfspace of the internet" was falling into the near universal "long tail" pattern, observed in nature and society.
Whether it is true or not, it was clear that most of the trade publishers in the room guessed that most of their books constituted that top 20% accounting for 80% of the sales. Leave the "long tail" for self-publishers and the academic specialists! As the author panel (featuring J. A. Konrath (Lt. Jack Daniels mysteries), Stephen J. Dubner (half of Freakonomics), and Josh Kilmer-Purcell (top-selling memoirist and drag queen) showed, even the most telegenic and hard-working authors were obsessed by having a "proper" publisher and valued the branding and service that brought. In short, just like academic publishers, most trade authors are in the business for personal prestige and the power of the brand as a certification of quality remains undimmed for both authors and their readers.
In the only comments that suggested even implicit criticism of Google, a couple of speakers reflected on the dangers which amalgamations (even "mash-ups") of content posed to publishing brands. Rather than entrusting digitization to Google Book Search, "we should be creating our own repositories . . . so we have faces," said Tim O'Reilly, referring to C.S. Lewis's moral tale. As Carolyn Pittis, VP of Global Marketing Strategy and Operations at Harper Collins, repeated as she demonstrated the company's impressively complex digital workflow, "monetization of digital content requires content control."
None of this would be cheap. Christoph Chesher of Taylor & Francis, revealing some of the practical experience that STM publishers now have of digital book manufacture and sales, reminded the room that e-books were still almost as costly to produce as the paper product. Saving on printing, paper, and binding costs still removes only 10% from the retail price of a print book, while eliminating physical warehousing and shipping saves another 10%. A major additional cost remained the need to spread bets on the sustainability of different digital book formats; Open E-Book, Adobe Reader, MOBI et al. Tax in Europe on digital books vs. 0% VAT in the UK on print threw other spanners in the works. Sales remained relatively disappointing, although the success of short-term rental experiments (renting 1 day of access for 10% of the full price) showed how students preferred to use academic books online.