Digital Book World: CEOs look at e-book profits, possibilities

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Four of publishing’s leaders filled a massive ballroom to capacity and then some in New York City on Tuesday morning as Digital Book World kicked off in earnest. David Steinberger, CEO of Perseus; Michael Hyatt, Chairman & CEO of Thomas Nelson; Jane Friedman, formerly of HarperCollins, now CEO, Open Road Integrated Media; and Brian Napack -- who pointed out that he’s president, not CEO, of Macmillan -- were interviewed by David Nussbaum, CEO of F+W Media, which is presenting Digital Book World.

The CEOs (and president) on the panel were upbeat about publishing’s future. ‘I think the industry is vibrant, vital,’ Friedman said, setting the tone. Napack went even further, saying, ‘I’d like to think we are entering the golden age of publishing.’

The reason for all this optimism, of course, are e-books. In the session immediately prior, the numbers looked positive: 10.5 million people own a dedicated e-reader; one-third of iPad owners also own a Kindle; there were close to $1 billion in e-books sales in 2010, and those sales are forecast to rise to $1.3 billion in 2011.

‘Amazon did us a great favor proving that there was a market for e-books,’ Napack said. That was a gesture of public reconciliation: Napack’s company, Macmillan, had a famous showdown with Amazon during which Amazon removed the ‘buy’ buttons from all Macmillan titles.


But things have changed significantly as e-books’ popularity has grown. Amazon once made up 95% of Macmillan’s e-book sales; now, Napack says, it’s closer to 60%. That change is because there is a diversity of retailers -- major e-book sales venues include Apple’s iBook store, Barnes & Noble and Google.

What’s interesting about this is that publishers are now moving into the role of selling to readers. Publishers have predominantly been in the business of selling books wholesale to retailers -- in other words, they’re a B-to-B business. With e-books, they are moving closer to a B-to-C model; increasingly, as there are more online e-book retailers, publishers need to build new models of marketing books directly to consumers.

The CEO panel talked about the general browsing that has traditionally been part of the bookstore model. ‘If you drop a couple hundred thousand books in bookstores, you can sell a bunch of them,’ Napack said. ‘Simple, razor-focused Internet retail is not going to do it.’

How will people find books? And are publishers ready to be the ones to connect readers to the books they want? Every year, 290,000 books are published, Napack said, and another 750,000 are self-published. Meaning that there are more than a million new books each year. Finding the right e-book may not be easy.

Can independent booksellers help? ‘The independent booksellers have a real chance of coming back,’ Friedman said. But there was some skepticism from the other panelists, as well as the others in the room.

And yet with more and more e-books on the way, and more than a billion dollars in sales coming this year, the question remains: How will readers get what they want, and how will publishers best get it to them?

-- Carolyn Kellogg