Even though it has been years since ebooks first shook up the publishing industry, the “Future of the Book” is still a hotly debated topic. It was this exciting subject that brought students, professionals, and book lovers together for the most recent NYU Media Talk. The panel discussion focused on where the industry is now, where it is headed, and some of the obstacles it faces along the way. Moderated by Michael Cader, the creator of Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Lunch, the panel featured a diverse group of industry leaders: Peter Balis, vice president and director, business development, global digital books, at John Wiley and Sons; Judith Curr, publisher of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Publishing Group; Peter Gethers, president of Random House Studio and an editor-at-large for Penguin Random House (U.S.); and Tom Turvey, director of strategic partnerships at Google.
The panelists dove into the topic with a question about the main obstacles facing publishers today. Curr and Balis both agreed that the main challenges are in reaching the audience. Balis explained that publishers need to better understand readers’ “bandwidth,” which includes not only what they want to read, but also how much time they have to do so. Turvey, noting that Google Books has expanded this year into 30 countries, added that some of the biggest problems come from the international landscape and the lack of clear, agreed-upon standards; Gethers said he faces challenges within the industry. His biggest struggle is to convince longtime editors and publishers to extend their perspective beyond the physical book toward exploring new ways to use authors’ content. “It’s a complete mind shift for a lot of people,” Gethers said.
The leveling off of digital book sales also came up in the conversation. “When you think about the impacts of technology, they’re typically overstated in the short run and understated in the long run,” Turvey said. “It’s very hard to predict the trends from year to year when you’re in the middle of it.” He believes that the existing ebook market has simply paused in its development and still has a long way to go. “It goes bumpy for a very, very long time and eventually you pick up different parts of the business that right now may seem impossible or very hard,” he explained.
Eventually, talk turned towards the possible forms future books might take. Balis said there are two sides to the future of the book: there is the ebook that is a facsimile of a physical book, and there is another track exploring the other places where the digital content of a book can make its way into the hands of consumers. An ebook, he argued, is simply a format difference and a matter of preference. What is interesting is what other possibilities the digital format will lead to. “It depends whether the digital revolution creates a new way of storytelling,” Curr stated, adding that she wondered if the generation that is growing up with digital books will find new ways to tell and experience books.
This was the overall message of the night: the exciting future these changes are leading toward. People still want to read, and publishers are finding new ways to engage with their readers and provide content. Gethers talked about the importance of authors connecting to their audience on social media and the need for publishers to act as curators. “I think over the next few years the idea of being a curator is going to become more and more important because you need someone to trust in a democratized world,” he said, speaking of the overabundance of content available on the internet. Curr talked about new steps that Simon & Schuster is taking now, including streamlining the outreach to bloggers through an online “newsroom” which gives bloggers a direct line to the publisher’s biggest news. She also mentioned the Atria Indie Authors program which supports and promotes authors who had started their careers through self publishing. “It’s about thinking outside of ourselves. What [technology] allows many people is access to books and access to knowledge and information that they’ve never, ever had before,” Curr said. “It’s much bigger than [trade publishing].”
This “education revolution” is certainly still growing and creating more exciting opportunities for the book industry. But even with all these changes, the panel agreed the most basic fact has not changed: it is an industry based on passion and love for the written word.
by Chloe Goodhart
For further coverage of this latest NYU Media Talk, check out the Publishers Weekly article at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/trade-shows-events/article/60063-at-nyu-experts-debate-future-of-the-book.html.