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Bloomsbury and the Struggle With Web Economics
Book publishers have yet to take full advantage of Web 1.0
William Pollard (will789)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-04-25 16:53 (KST)   
At the London Bookfair, held at Earl's Court last week, Libre Digital demonstrated how Bloomsbury now offer online options to "look inside" their books. This was just one of the signs of adjustment to the new possibilities opened up by Google projects to scan books and allow searches for excerpts and extracts. Publishers are looking for ways to control content and are finding ways to work with the Web.

Libre Digital also offer ways to sell digital versions of books in ways that protect copyright.

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Stephanie Duncan, Digital Media Director of Bloomsbury Publishing, said that "our ability to bring all of our book content into the digital age will greatly expand how readers consume their favorite books and interact with other fans, thereby benefiting the book industry as a whole."

Previously Bloomsbury have been articulate in raising issues about digital publishing. The Harry Potter series has not been available as ebooks, partly because of fears about piracy. A petition to eBay has been organized to stop the resale of pirated Harry Potter ebooks. It has been made clear that J.K.Rowling will never authorize the issue of an ebook.

In January 2005 she wrote on her blog that "The only genuine copies of Harry Potter remain the authorized traditional book or audio tapes/cassettes/CDs distributed through my publishers. Similarly, the only sources of release news you should trust are this Web site or official spokespeople such as representatives of my publishers or agent."

The unfortunate consequence of the lack of an official ebook has sometimes been that a pirated version is encouraged. In 2005 it was reported on mobileread.com that scanners were busy on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince within days of publication. There was a significant comment from Colin Dunstan: "I don't condone copyright piracy. But it should be clear, even to J.K. Rowling, that there's always going be piracy no matter what you do. The best way to minimize would be to release an official ebook version. Maybe with Harry Potter Book 7?"

Just before the London Bookfair in 2006 there was an article in the Guardian by Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury, calling for a boycott of the Google project to scan books and offer searches on out-of-copyright titles as well as those supplied by publishers. Since then publishers have found ways to allow search engines to find their content while retaining control of copyright and offering direct sales. MPS Technologies have launched BookStore with MacMillan New Writing with a similar approach to "Look Inside."

Microsoft presented their own version, Live Search Books, at the London Bookfair, together with an academic search comparable to Google Scholar. This has added credibility to the style of project, especially as Microsoft are being very cautious in the books they consider to be out of copyright. The Google approach has been represented as too ready to scan first and worry about publisher permission later. Relations between Google and publishers are improving, with meetings well attended on each day. In a case study of Berg it was explained that for books supplied by publishers the proportion of content available can be varied. In one case a title kept a place as part of a course by being fully available while a reprint was arranged and then went back to restricted access once the new stock was available.

Amazon are building on the original "Look Inside" feature to offer an "Amazon Upgrade" with additional access to a digital version once readers have purchased the hard copy. It is possible to add notes that can be shared with others or kept secure.

Although it started well before talk of "Web 2.0," Amazon has always had ways to exchange reviews and comments. It seems well placed to develop this into the depth of complete texts. Publishers are now aware of the significance of social networking online. In an article for The Deal, a magazine distributed by the London Bookfair, Richard Withey, global director of interactive media for Independent News and Media wrote that "it's only a matter of time before your publishing becomes downloading, your distribution becomes conversation ..."

Bloomsbury have announced developments for 2008. Their recent financial report describes "a project which will we believe create a unique community for readers, writers and publishers, host user-generated content and generate significant online advertising opportunities."

This has already resulted in an online response. Kate Hyde asked in her blog: "who needs this 'literary alternativ' to MySpace or Bebo more? Readers and consumers of books, or the old players of the publishing industry looking with trepidation at the balance sheet and Brave New World of the Attention Economy? I'm playing devil's advocate here, but from reader's perspective, why split oneself in two? Is it not possible for discussion and enthusiasm about literature have a legitimate place in mainstream social networking, alongside music, film and other media?"

Other issues were raised by Peter Collingridge in a blog entry held in reserve for a column in the Bookseller.
"Paradoxically, many of the successes of the Internet -- Amazon, eBay,Google, MySpace and upstart LibraryThing -- demonstrate Web users interest in, and love for, books as well as the Web's innate aptitude for serving these passions. So, to be sure, online marketing remains a massive opportunity for publishers to exploit.

The problem with the 'Web 2.0' technologies is not just that they are incompatible with the target audiences of most books, but that publishers haven't yet harnessed the basics of 'Web 1.0.'

How many publisher sites even offer rich, up to date, better-than Amazon data? Attractive, intuitive design? Value-added content, access to authors? Search engine optimization? Flawless commerce and customer service? Above all, consistent and engaging communication of the singular proposition of that house and its authors? Booksellers are not immune from this criticism either.

Without a grasp of what makes a good site compelling and successful,it is implausible that a publisher could 'leverage' the new technologies to worthwhile benefit without wasting the ample opportunities before them."
In the U.K. there is now a pressure on bookshops both from supermarkets for the most popular titles and from the Web for depth of stock. The result is that there may be fewer bookshops with less range. Outstanding bestsellers are not easy to identify. The reliance on celebrity names has had mixed results. Wayne Rooney's first autobiography sold less copies than expected, even with help from Hunter Davies. Apparently there is confidence in a new book by Dawn French, a popular entertainer on U.K. TV. But as sales move online it is the backlist that becomes more significant.

The Google sessions included a case study on Cambridge University Press, founded in 1534 and claiming to be the world's oldest publisher still in existence. They started to contribute titles for Google Book Search in April 2004 and recently compared 2003 sales with 2006 for titles published before 2000. They found a 20 percent difference compared to the titles not in the program.

The Telegraph reported that Bloomsbury profits for 2006 were down by 75 percent, partly because of comparison with a year in which a Harry Potter book was published. It is unlikely that another series could be found that would be so universal. The changes around views on the Web could be explained as part of a new phase when concentrating on a small number of titles will be unusual.

The move to eBooks is also influenced by developments in music downloads. Stephanie Duncan told the Sydney Morning Herald

"Ebooks have been around for a few years and I think they haven't taken off because maybe they came out a bit before their time. I think we're on the cusp of a digital reading device being launched that will have the same impact on ebooks as the iPod had on digital music."

There are now 200 Bloomsbury ebooks and the Web site will soon show them as an option alongside other formats.

However there was no hint of this on the Bloomsbury stand. The appearance of the London Bookfair on level one was that nothing much had changed since Bloomsbury launched in 1986. The appearance is that the industry is still based on books as hard copy. In some respects there is less attention for ebooks than previously. In 2006 there was a special area for academic online publishing. This has gone and the visibility of ebooks now varies with different publishers.

Taylor and Francis did have a catalogue, but intended only for academic libraries prepared to spend thousands of dollars on a package. Someone from a bookshop interested in connecting with a digital offer would not have found much that was obvious. Even O'Reilley had no screens to show off their Rough Cuts, PDF subscriptions to work in progress. It could be that there is not yet a general model for a bookseller to relate to. They did however show a book packaging for a CD described as a 580 page guide to the Nikon D200 in PDF format. This could be stocked in bookshops and includes scalable images relating to photographic technique.

There was a report on a meeting about ebooks in a blog for Information World Review. However, this makes no mention of anything discovered on the stands. There may be more about publishing at the Online Information show in December.

Lonely Planet have stopped publishing ebook versions of their travel guides but there is more information on their Web site. Sales may not have been encouraging as they did not alter the ebook between editions of the hard copy. It would be technically possible to create a PDF from a changing database but I have not seen such an offer. A meeting about travel suggested that this is one area where Web sites are defining the environment for book publishing. Stephen Palmer was reported by the Bookseller as saying that books and digital technology would "co-exist" indefinitely with the next shift waiting on the day when charges for mobile phones ceased to be extortionate for roaming away from home. One interesting response to this comes from Moleskine who publish city guides that are mostly empty notebooks for the traveller to fill in. They do host a Web site for experience to be shared.

The technology stands were on level two of the London Bookfair, described as "Publishing Solutions." Trilogy demonstrated a Woodwing workflow system based on Adobe Creative Suite. Currently it works mostly with InDesign, but in future could relate to animation or video. Level two discussions seemed to be in a parallel world to level one.

The main advice I got when admitting to confusion over time and space was to wait till June or July and be somewhere else. The "Publishing Solutions" seemed to be only remotely connected with the publishers. Here Libre Digital for example had a plasma screen so could offer a better explanation of "Look Inside" than on the Bloomsbury stand itself. William Gibson has explained that the future has already arrived but is unevenly distributed. This can seem especially true in one large building.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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