If I heard one more publishing expert proclaim at Book Expo America this week that “the industry is changing”, I was prepared to clock her over the head with the 110-page Show Daily broadsheet.

The evidence of an already-transformed book industry was obvious everywhere I looked at the annual trade show, held inside the cavernous, almost windowless Jacob Javits Convention Centre on the inconvenient far west side of Manhattan. In a show ostensibly about connecting publishers and booksellers, there were a surprising number of booths belonging to technology vendors, software developers, “solutions providers”, app developers and digital data crunchers.

At the publishers launch conference on global digital publishing held the day before the expo proper began, the mood of the expert speakers was uniformly upbeat. Three years ago, when I last attended Book Expo, the show was smaller in size and even smaller in spirit. Publishers and booksellers were reeling from the twin shocks of the GFC and the ebook. Now that the virtual dust has settled, and many publishers are seeing increasing revenues in a flat market, they’re all cosmetically enhanced smiles.

At the conference, publishing veterans sat alongside techno newcomers and spoke in a hybrid publishing patois about metadata and social and E and P (“electronic” and “print”). They spoke of the need for integrating social media with “analog publicity”, of the need for content curation and building communities of readers around “content verticals”. They freely admitted hiring data analysts and “chief talent officers” to find people from outside the publishing industry to help them “monetise their content”. Agent Simon Lipskar said that English majors were turning into maths geeks at his agency, Writers House. If technology’s not your bag, then publishing no longer seems to offer you safe harbour.

It was bizarre to learn that the ebook industry in the US is considered mature when the Kindle is five years old and the iPad about two. Australia’s ebook market seems to be where the US was three years ago. Everyone who mentioned the Australian market expects to see surges in ebook sales here for the next three years until they begin to flatten out, which is what’s happening in the US now.

Unlike the music industry, where digital files replaced old technology, all the publishing industry research shows that books will continue in a mixture of digital and print formats. Data suggests sales of dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle peaked in mid-2011, but that tablet sales are on the rise and are expected to overtake laptops by 2020.

The time-poverty of non-fiction readers seems to be the reason for the relatively low sales of non-fiction ebooks compared to fiction. Entrepreneurs such as Linda Holliday are trying to address this in diverse and curious ways. At Book Expo she launched her CITIA app for readers like herself, who are interested in reading serious non-fiction but who have “new media habits”. She felt the situation of having idea-driven content “locked up in a physical book” was no less than “content apartheid”. Her software allows a reader to navigate a non-fiction ebook with a system of virtual index cards that arrange the author’s material according to themes and main points. A high-end virtual CliffsNotes, if you will. None of that time-consuming business of having actually to read whole pages strung together by a subject expert over years of research and thinking. “I’m trying to make a book more like lace and less like a brick,” she said.

My first reaction to these statements was to want to throw said brick, but on reflection I suspect her app might prove very popular with those who prefer their reading skimmed rather than full-cream. The first CITIA ebook is Penguin’s forthcoming What Technology Wants by former Wired editor Kevin Kelly.

I was surprised to learn that the level of a country’s internet penetration does not correlate with readers’ interest in digital books. We have higher per-capita access to the internet than the US (at 97.8%), but 45% of Australian readers have no interest in reading or buying ebooks at all.

Despite genre fiction driving the sales of the majority of ebooks in Australia, fiction is declining as an overall percentage of sales, whether E or P. “Fiction will not save the independent bookstores,” declared Bowker Market Research’s Kelly Gallagher.

And yet bookshops continue to be critically important for helping readers discover new authors. The problem of discovery looms as an increasingly complex challenge for book marketers. Presenting the results of the Codex Group study on discovering and selling books in the digital age, Peter Hildick-Smith reported that over the past year, readers who bought their last book in a physical bookshop had declined from 31% to 17%. That steep decline has been offset by gains in digital mass media discovery, personal recommendation and “analog publicity”, but there was a data gap of about 11%, which he officially declared a “mystery”.

Rick Joyce, from Perseus, says that publishers need to get over the fact that the book business has changed. “Newspapers are changing too,” he said. “It’s not a question of stopping or reversing a trend, but of doing the other things we now need to do. Figure out how to do the stuff you could never do before.”

The message from Book Expo is that there are more opportunities for publishers than ever before. If that’s true, then there are more opportunities for readers and authors too. But there seems no clear answer yet to the declining numbers of physical bookshops for helping connect readers with authors who are not already on the bestseller lists, or not yet published. Technology may be publishing’s only clear way forward, but in cyberspace, no one can hear a new author scream.

Peter Fray

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