Memoir

When big tech met books

The publishing industry after Google and Amazon

THE FIRST TIME I went to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, I had an appointment with Google. Its stand in Hall Eight was a shiny white pod with no retractable banners or cheap shelving in sight. The pod made a perfect background for the primary colours of Google’s then-serif logo set out on its outer shell. Hall Eight was the English-language hall, though perhaps there were replica Google pods in all the other halls; they felt, even then, omnipresent. At our meeting inside the pod I remember talking about the Google Preview function, of which NewSouth Publishing, my employer then and now, was an early adopter. Analogue babes in the digital woods, my colleague Nella Soeterboek and I also discussed the Google Books Library Project, about which we were far more ambivalent. That Google wanted to digitise every book ever published didn’t seem like a utopian vision to us. It was more of a statement of intent, the intent being to take over the world.

Meeting done, I stepped out of the pod with my free Google-branded USB stick and an invitation to arrange a follow-up meeting with a software engineer in case ‘I had any coding questions’. If this sounds now like a euphemism for something else, it did then too. The engineer’s name was Avi, and he seemed more like a Bollywood film star than an emerging Silicon Valley IT genius. He may have been both. If I were casting someone whose job was to appeal to women in publishing with no coding knowledge, he would have won the part.

Google was ten years old and already the search engine nonpareil. In 2008, its search engine supremacy was longstanding – in digital years at least. Even then, its advertising revenues may have been higher than the revenue from books published by most of the Hall Eight exhibitors. Combined. I doubt I realised that day in the pod that Google had already entered its second act and was much more than a search engine. It already owned YouTube, for example.

I haven’t made the trek to the Frankfurt Book Fair for a few years, because I disrupted myself by writing my own book. The fair now brands itself as ‘a marketplace for printed and digital content’. Google’s mission to dominate the world of search and beyond has been accomplished. It is so big that it has a parent company called Alphabet that would seem to own all the letters. But Google still exhibits at Frankfurt. In 2018, the corporation’s main purpose at the Frankfurt Book Fair, according to the brief descriptions in the published list of exhibitors, was to promote Google Play, e-books (and music, TV, magazines, games and film) that are aimed at ‘one billion Android users’.

Amazon’s Kindle had been launched the year before my first Frankfurt, and the new reading device was the talk of the fair in 2008. The tone of this chatter oscillated between excitement and fear. The number of Kindles that the company had shipped prompted some attendees to talk about the end of printed books. Most of the Amazon warehouses across the world would now dwarf Hall Eight, with its 30,000 square metres of display space. The hall feels vast when you’re inside, bolting to your next appointment. But it’s not so huge alongside the average Amazon warehouse, where floorspace – not all taken up by books of course – is around five times that size. If Amazon’s impact on the publishing industry were to be reflected in the size of its Frankfurt Book Fair presence, it would need to take up a whole Hall Eight and colonise a few of the surrounding halls too. But it, too, has disrupted its own mission in Frankfurt and it now seems to be about wooing Germans to Amazon Publishing. Frankfurt 2018 had a dedicated audiobook conference, audiobooks being a growing part of publishing now. Audible, owned by Amazon, is the world’s largest audiobook company.

 

SINCE MY FIRST visit to Frankfurt more than a decade ago, big tech has taken over the world. The only company more valuable than Amazon is Apple. Alphabet (Google) is not far behind. These three monoliths were in the mix back then, but other players have since risen. And risen. Facebook had a million users in 2008 (I wasn’t one of them then, but I was the proud owner of a Blackberry and an iPod). Netflix was a DVD mailing service.

Back then, retail power was equated with size. Not the size of your online e-retailing platform, but the size of your glass-fronted, fully staffed and stocked store. There were enormous bookshops in suburban malls. Other bookstores paid high rent in city-centre retail precincts, as well as high-street shops patronised by locals who felt loyalty and affection to their booksellers but who, it turned out, were as interested in discounts as anyone else. As the world became digital, these superstores – and in fact all bookshops – were described as ‘bricks-and-mortar’. The description seemed weird to me at the time, but now, of course, I use it without thinking twice. Big-box stores like Borders spread over many floors and displayed thousands of titles, many impossible to find even when staff knew they were there. Somewhere. Most had a Starbucks café as well. You could almost live in these stores, and anecdotes suggested that many homeless people tried to. Big W and Kmart also started selling books in higher quantities, usually with higher discounts, fittingly, given their retail category is Discount Department Stores. Select stores within the well-established Australian bookselling chain Collins acquired the prefix ‘Super’. Another bookselling chain that carried a weight of history, Angus & Robertson, became A&R Whitcoulls. It went on to buy the Australian, New Zealand and Singapore Borders stores, and all these bookstores formed REDgroup Retail.

In 2011, which also happens to be the year it collapsed, REDgroup accounted for a fifth of Australia’s $1.6-billion-dollar book market. Its stores sold mainly printed books, as well as gifts, calendars, magazines, stationary, CDs and DVDs. They sold Kobo readers too, perhaps inspired by the way in which Barnes and Noble had focused on a single device, the Nook, in the US. But it did not seem to be a winning strategy. In a case not of causation – my own memories, fortified by a cursory revisit of REDgroup management practices, confirm the path of doom that it was on – but of correlation, the company collapsed within a year of Apple launching iBooks. I imagine that many people who shopped in Borders haven’t had a caramel mocha frappuccino since then.

 

CHANGE FELT SO rapid on all fronts. For those of us making a living from books and publishing, one of these fronts included the work front. Would the nitty-gritty of what we did at work change? New online platforms generated high in-house anxiety about new issues thrown up by e-book publishing and distribution: agency agreements, digital rights management and windowing – terms that seem irrelevant now. What would having to prepare e-books in various formats do to our workflows? Could we price them so that cheaper digital products didn’t crush print revenues?

Ten years on, these concerns seem a little quaint. The good news is that publishing lives! Many imprints don’t, however. And working out net job losses in the Australian industry has been more challenging than it should, thanks to poor data. Corporate manoeuvring by major global players – trade and educational – and their shareholders will continue, although it’s too soon to know whether we will see another merger at the giant scale of the 2013 union of Random House and Penguin. Much-loved local bookstores closed, but others opened. Around the same time that Melbourne was named as a UNESCO City of Literature, there was some hand-wringing that the Fountain Gate mall in suburban Melbourne (as frequented by Kath and Kim) had no bookstore. Now, in 2019, it has two.

Books are still being published, and readers are still buying them; sales of e-books appear to have plateaued from their 2013 peak; independent bookstores seem to be resurgent and print sales are holding steady or even rising. We have found new audiences and readers with audiobooks, often read by the author. Each summer, in a shining example of continuity that few would have predicted a decade ago, weekend newspapers come with printed Christmas catalogues and summer reading guides. These inserts are supported by publishers and a range of independent and chain bookstores such as Dymocks, Gleebooks, Readings, Avid Reader, Fullers, Imprints, Kinokuniya – still players after all these years.

Does this mean that while big tech took over, the traditional business of publishing managed to remain intact, changed but not transformed so as to be unrecognisable? Can both these things be true?

 

JOEL NAOUM OWNED a first-generation Kindle. But he read books on a device that preceded it: the PalmPilot. At his interview to become an editorial assistant at Pan Macmillan in 2007, he says, ‘I whipped out my PalmPilot to show that I was interested in this stuff. I had a copy of The Road, which was a Pan-Mac-published book.’ It was a pirated copy: ‘there was no way to get it. No one was selling it,’ he says. Forgetting this, he said mid-interview, ‘I’m actually reading The Road at the moment.’ When Cate Paterson (now Pan Macmillan publishing director) asked him how he’d got that, he had ‘the sudden realisation that I’d made a terrible error,’ he says. However, the interview panel must have seen that he was the perfect person for digitising editorial processes at Pan Macmillan, because they gave him the job.

Naoum’s former role – at the digital coalface but within a major publishing house – gives him a unique perspective on changes in the industry over the past decade. He points to two events that reframed our industry, which happened to coincide: the digitisation of editorial, production, sales and marketing processes, and the launch of e-books as a distinct product. ‘I think there was a lot of anxiety around digitising because the industry digitised at the same time that e-books came along. But actually, we could have digitised and kept the whole industry in print, without e-books’.

Naoum’s editorial skills and technological savvy (he would have had genuine questions for Avi the Google engineer) led to him being chosen to run Momentum, Pan Macmillan’s new digital imprint in Sydney, in 2011. He tells me, ‘Momentum was an imprint of Pan Mac but we had an external office and staff. We were about a kilometre down the road. Just near Chinatown. At max there were about five staff.’

It was an exciting experiment. ‘It was around the time of Borders and A&R going under and basically Pan Mac was looking for a way of demonstrating to Germany that they were doing something interesting in the digital space.’ (Pan Macmillan is part of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.) ‘To be able to say we’re still investing and innovating…there was money they could spend on that because there wasn’t money they could spend on print because there was a lot of pessimism around print in the Australian market at the time.’

Naoum became combined publisher, editor and IT guy at Momentum: ‘I literally wired up the server at the Momentum office.’ At Momentum, not surprisingly, everything was digital. ‘Most of our books came out in digital at the other end, so why would we have a print-focused work flow?’ But what made Momentum truly unique was that most of its books were digital only.

Naoum didn’t doubt that some of his editorial colleagues at Pan Macmillan may have felt threatened by this new initiative. He didn’t take it personally, he says, and in 2011 the Unwin Trust Fellowship allowed him to travel to the UK and reflect on the likely prospects of digital publishing. ‘I definitely didn’t think e-books were going to take over the industry,’ he says. ‘I always thought that print was going to be the dominant format.’

It was becoming obvious that most book publishers – people like me – weren’t well placed to become app developers. High-level interactive digital products demanded skills we didn’t have and wouldn’t invest in. We didn’t know if our readers would want them anyway. (It turns out that most didn’t.) ‘I was pretty certain that most of that stuff was going to be taken up by games developers and web developers and app makers,’ says Naoum. ‘You know, people with actual expertise in how to produce that stuff. Publishers who tried would either have to make a massive investment and change their whole business model and therefore not really be publishers anymore, or fail.’

Naoum had five years at Momentum before it was folded back into the mothership, and he published almost 500 titles – a huge number that includes backlist titles going into digital formats for the first time, and star authors like Matthew Reilly. His approach to commissioning and publishing was plural. ‘We tried everything,’ he says. ‘We concentrated on genre fiction for the most part. Which is what has continued to be the thing that works in digital.’

He’s talking about genres that seem niche but which are probably bigger than, say, the market for most Nobel prize-winning literature in translation. Australian author Kylie Scott was ‘probably our most successful author that we created from nothing,’ says Naoum. Momentum published Scott’s breakout book, Lick (tagline: ‘Waking up in Vegas was never supposed to be like this’) in 2013. Rockstar romance may sound niche, but Naoum says it sold ‘over 100,000 copies in the first couple of months’. My eyes must look like they’re about to pop because he adds that the book had a ‘lower price point than a traditionally published book. Five bucks, six bucks.’ Kylie Scott has gone on to become a New York Times bestselling author with her books translated into eleven languages.

Who is Kylie Scott’s publisher now? She is. ‘One of the things that was interesting about Momentum was that ultimately we were competing with self-publishers, not with traditional publishers,’ says Naoum. It’s an important distinction. Many Australian publishers and booksellers saw Amazon as the elephant in the room, even when it wasn’t actually in the room: Amazon only set up its own Australian warehouses and a .au domain in 2017. But what if the elephant left not only the room but the building itself, took lots of your audience and clients (your readers and authors) – and a big chunk of revenue that might have once been yours – with it and you didn’t even realise? Publishers kept doing pretty much what we’d always done, commissioning, editing, printing and distributing through established channels, including Amazon – while Amazon Publishing developed a giant market in genre fiction. It had niches within niches that included Amish vampires, time-travelling lusty cavemen and BBW (big, beautiful women) protagonists.

Naoum says: ‘There were a couple of big breakout, massive-selling successes in self-publishing leading up to that point. And from that point on they went invisible because they all went into KDP Select.’ KDP is Kindle Direct Publishing Select, an Amazon-exclusive platform for e-books that can’t be sold through Apple, Google Play, Kobo or anywhere else. Its sales data is invisible to anyone who doesn’t have a direct line to Amazon spreadsheets. And that is pretty much everyone. Amazon imprints launched after that too, solidifying its presence across all aspects of the publishing sphere. Almost a decade later, in 2019 Amazon’s own imprints include Montlake Romance and Thomas & Mercer for thrillers and crime. They publish trade fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, and boast that they have thirty-six authors with more than a million readers. (The website doesn’t say that they have published a million authors who average thirty-six readers each, but that too is within the realm of the possible.) Some of these books are in print, but most are e-books.

Amazon is extremely secretive about its data, and it’s hard to know how big a slice of publishing and bookselling Amazon has taken when it not only run its own exclusive self-publishing show, but is also the world’s biggest bookseller of everyone else’s print books. In many ways, it knows what you want to read before you do.

Naoum talks of an American author, Hugh Howey, who wrote blockbuster serialised science fiction called Wool (tagline: ‘If the lies don’t kill you the truth will’) that was published digitally on Amazon. Traditional publishers and booksellers have benefited from his success as well because Howey did an unprecedented deal: he ‘kept his digital rights and sold print rights to Random House,’ says Naoum, ‘which no one else has really managed to pull off since then’. Seeking to advise other self-published authors, Howey has since collaborated with an anonymous data analyst and launched a platform called Author Earnings.

This website extrapolates sales figures from e-book sales ranks – primarily Amazon’s given it is the largest player, although interestingly, Apple has a bigger share of the e-book market in Australia than elsewhere. Rather than getting granular about which authors are making money in which genres and on what platforms, the key message of Author Earnings for me is that e-book sales probably haven’t plateaued at all. Instead, they’ve moved to a world where traditional publishers are not players. We publishers may console ourselves that print remains strong in the face of digital, but perhaps we’re missing out on a big part of the digital market – something that might please self-published authors and the owner of the platform they publish on.

And therein lies an alternative industry narrative, a parallel publishing world that many of us, including me, choose not to see. Joel Naoum now runs a publishing consultancy. He shares with me a sobering perspective that many of his clients, mainly self-published authors, share. ‘Some authors think that publishers are dinosaurs.’

Of course, I disagree. Complacency is a luxury we don’t have. Writing, publishing and bookselling demand so much more now than they did a decade ago, and we all do it for the same or less money. I wonder how we’re still standing, but we are. We’re still working with authors to develop ideas and stories, and to market, promote and distribute books in innovative ways that barely existed a decade ago. We juggle social media campaigns and negotiate with international wholesalers who are busy redefining freight logistics. We find ourselves in a globalised world where we try to increase the space for Australian stories beyond quitting sugar and bare-foot investing. Publishers seek diverse voices for our lists, much more than we did a decade ago.

If I were a dinosaur, my job would be non-existent too. But it’s still there, as are those of most other publishers, editors, booksellers, printers and writers. Not all, but more than we feared might be the case a decade ago.

 

WHAT ABOUT READERS? How has the disruption of this industry impacted on them? This is surely a good time to be a reader. Each year, booksellers, critics and judging panels for literary prizes comment that it has been a strong year for fiction/non-fiction/young adult/children’s books. It might not be a dispassionate assessment, but we can take it as one marker that the quality of literature is holding up. Writers’ festivals sell out, and there are more opportunities for readers to eyeball their favourite authors than ever before. Books are available in many formats and more of them are being published than ever.

Territorial copyright persists and publishers work hard to make sure that books are available in Australia simultaneous to their overseas publication date. Book prices have barely increased since my first visit to Frankfurt in 2008. Speaking to The Guardian, British Publishers’ Association chief Stephen Lotinga explained the impact supermarkets and large online retailers, by which he mainly means Amazon, have had on stagnant retail prices: ‘Clearly when you are operating in a world where very large retailers are able to dictate prices in a massive sector, it is hard to fight.’

The real questions about disruption and publishing can’t be answered through industry analysis. They can only be answered by interrogating our culture. To ask whether printed books will end up in the same category as vinyl records or wind-up watches is to ask about nostalgia, not about the future of reading. We spend our days looking at screens. Ever optimistic, I used to assume that people on the train were reading e-books. Now spotting a Kindle or even an iPad among the smartphones is less common than it used to be, and most people are scrolling through their Instagram, Facebook or Twitter feeds. Or watching YouTube videos.

Or they’re bingeing on Netflix when they get home, now not only the king of streaming services but a producer of programs itself. This is indeed a golden age for television. ‘I don’t have time to read,’ people confess to me all the time when they hear that I’m a publisher and a writer. Parents often add that they’re concerned their children don’t read enough either. But most children will be forced to read a book or two as part of their studies. With adults it’s entirely up to them and most tell me they’re choosing not to read, as guilty as it makes them feel. I’ve never responded by saying ‘Well, if you watch three episodes of Killing Eve back-to-back of course you won’t have time to read.’ It’s a choice, and television is often more seductive.

It’s also a golden age for podcasting, another way to consume story­telling or journalism while you commute, exercise, clean the house or lie in bed. Nearly a quarter of all Americans listen to podcasts at least once a month. In Australia, the most popular is ABC’s Conversations with Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski, which also happens to be catnip for book publishers, as it not only promotes their recently published authors but also provides new stories for them to commission. The program has two million downloads a month.

Podcasting sensations often seem to be about murdered women (Serial, The Teacher’s Pet) but there really is a podcast about everything. Many of the most successful ones happen to be the most serious and nuanced, and they are disproportionately produced by public radio. The creative brilliance of podcasting, as Rebecca Mead observed in a recent piece for The New Yorker, lies in its intimate and immersive nature. She writes, ‘Podcasts are designed to take up time, rather than to be checked, scanned and rushed through.’

Books share these attributes too, of course. Can we measure whether grown adults are choosing to read books in their leisure time or if other options are more appealing or distracting? The American data on this, which writer Caleb Crain has dissected using the American Time Use survey, is fascinating. In 2016, Americans devoted just over seventeen minutes per day to reading for pleasure, down from just over twenty-one minutes in 2003. If you’re a reader, writer and publisher it’s depressing, but not if you’re a tele­vision producer because Americans are watching more television than ever: 3.45 hours in 2016, up from 3.28 hours in 2003. I’d bet my meagre royalty earnings that Australians are doing the same. The 2017 Australia Council/Macquarie University survey of reading habits does not benefit from detail comparable to the time-use survey Crain cites in his piece for The New Yorker, but it makes clear that Australians value books. They just wish they had more time to read them.

Storytelling in different forms – podcasting, television – is fine by me. I know people haven’t stopped reading. And publishing has never not been a tough business. Publishers and writers always sound defensive when they say that books still carry cultural weight, but they really do – perhaps more than ever in our hectic, high-stakes time when the words ‘fake news’ have become a punchline. Books may show us why we are so unsettled; they may map different paths away from here. Books and publishing and the reading ecology that supports them aren’t endangered, and it’s my dream that books themselves will take on more disruptive power by disrupting power. A book can’t bring down a government on its own, but it can provide ballast to forces that can.

It is telling, and more than a little alarming, that Silicon Valley executives are renowned for limiting their own children’s screen time and making them read books. Microsoft founder Bill Gates reads fifty books a year himself. According to The New York Times, Gates’ blog has become a force in publishing because of its excellent book recommendations and his passion for reading. As Gates says, ‘I think everyone could use a few more books in their lives.’

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