From the Publishers’ Perspective: “HTML5, EPUB 3, and a Little Merlot”

(l-r) Publishers Sarah Crichton, Bob Miller, Ana Maria Allessi and Brian Tart speak at NYU's Center for Publishing

It was anything but the usual doom and gloom at the latest event in the NYU Media Talk series hosted by The Center for Publishing at The New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Far from expressing apprehension about the transitional nature of the industry and the demise of print, the four panelists—all members of the Center for Publishing faculty—discussed their excitement and optimism. Speaking to an audience of NYU students and faculty as well as industry professionals, panelists Ana Maria Allessi, Sarah Crichton, Bob Miller and Brian Tart spoke candidly of their triumphs and failures, and how they’ve used these learning experiences to improve their business practices. The talk was moderated by Michael Cader, the founder of the widely-read newsletter Publishers Lunch, who was similarly upbeat about the state of mainstream publishing: “Ninety-nine times out of 100, the story a publisher has to tell about their success in real numbers is very convincing,” said Cader. “I wish Simon and Schuster were up there telling how many books the Steve Jobs biography moved the first day because I think it’s a very powerful statement. I don’t think a startup can do that and I don’t think a web-only company can do that… There are still things here that established companies and experts who have done this for 20 or 30 years can do very well, and probably do better than anyone else.”

Sarah Crichton, Publisher of Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, began by saying that “publishing has been changing for hundreds and hundreds of years, and it’s going to keep changing. You have to stay nimble, adaptable, and open-minded.” The best way to stay open-minded? According to Brian Tart, President and Publisher of Penguin Group’s Dutton imprint, it’s by developing a thick skin. “In the industry you learn how to do things to be successful, but in publishing… you learn how to fail really quickly,” he said. “Everything has changed around us so dramatically; we’re all learning how to publish in a new way and how to be successful at it. One of the ways [to do so] is to continue to experiment and figure things out.”

Ana Maria Allessi, Vice President and Publisher of HarperMedia, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, recommended taking “very educated, calculated small bets, watching them closely and then understanding where to apply resources.” With the rapid growth of e-book sales, she noted many publishers’ desire to develop new products with the same, limited resources. “How we choose to fund, support and execute those ideas is important,” she stressed. Bob Miller, group publisher of Workman Publishing, said watching trends, particularly in the digital world, is key to determining which ventures should be pursued. “We’re all nostalgic for the old days when we could just print a book and the same object would be going all the possible places it could go,” Miller said. “Now on top of all that, we have to mix a little HTML5 with EPUB 3 and a little Merlot,” he joked, “and try to figure out where to put it.”

The panelists also discussed how decreasing shelf-space has impacted their day-to-day jobs. “I think of all the challenges, that’s the scariest one for us,” Crichton said. “It’s not just the loss of independent bookstores; the loss of Borders for [Farrar Straus and Giroux] was heartbreaking.” She remains optimistic, however, stating that many bookstores are “being extremely imaginative and very creative” in developing ways to increase their business. Miller discussed publishers’ roles in aiding bookstores in this process. Workman Publishing recently started a program designed to increase shelf-space by providing stores with tables that have built-in shelves. “It’s called Square Deal,” Miller explained. “If stores take these tables, we supply them once a month with different books.”

When asked about specific failures, the panelists expressed the need to understand what consumers want, while being patient and flexible in the development of new products. Tart offered an example of an enhanced e-book his company had created that was unsuccessful. Despite his excitement about the new features of the product, “no one cared,” he said. “I really overstepped not only what I was doing as a publisher, but what the audience was ready for and what they wanted.” Allessi noted that timing in the development of new products (such as Tart’s enhanced e-book) is crucial. “I seem to make the same mistake over and over again, which is underestimating the time that it takes for people to adjust to something,” Allessi said. “I’m also continually surprised once consumers have sampled it [a new product] and they like it, how quickly they’ll run with it.”

Listening to the consumer is important, and so is heeding the author. “I spend most of my time looking at what authors do—trying to figure out what they’re doing to cultivate their audience,” Tart explained. “I think we can learn a lot from that.”

Each of the panelists seemed to agree on the importance of staying aware of consumer trends while producing a quality product. “Good books are still going to find their way,” Miller said. “[Publishers] do have the ability and the basic urge to make sure we get a book everywhere it can possibly be. To me,” he said, “that really goes to the heart of what we do in publishing. We are the champion of that book.”

by KeriLee Horan


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