Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hands Across the Ocean

On Shakespeare’s birthday, it seems only fitting to talk about the London Book Fair and what it suggests re book publishing’s future. It was, as others have said a smaller fair than in recent years, and there were noticeably fewer Americans, with some publishers (viz Random, Scholastic) represented only by their sub rights people.

A focus of the fair became – whether by design or default – the US/UK continuum. There were panels on what, how much and how Americans read vis-à-vis their British brethren (who are slightly likelier to be so, rather than sistren). London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, noted that London has twice the numbers of bookstores as New York, and made fun of Americans for being poor practitioners of the English language.

Meanwhile, on the floor of the exhibit hall and in the International Rights Center, the tug of war between the UK and their US counterparts continued apace and as the traditional channels shrink, the debate will only intensify. It was easy when a publisher bought a book, and if it owned them, sold rights around the world, and territories were recognized – and recognizable. Nowadays, if the UK and US publisher belong to the same corporation, one edition comes out in the UK, and finds its way to Europe. If not, then increasingly two editions vie for shelfspace. Publisherslunch refers to an article in Deutsche Welle about English language books, noting “One reason US and UK publishers are fighting over export rights is the fast rise in sales of English-language books in Germany, where the Booksellers' Association says market share has doubled to 3 percent over the past five years.”

In a digital world, all bets are off. Who – the publisher(s), the etailer(s), the ebook reader(s) platform -- controls which territory? Who controls the online marketing of a p- or ebook? What about the publisher’s niche sites, created to attract teens or science fiction fans, or romance readers? When does its oversite reside with the local publisher, and when does it become part of the corporate strategy? It’s one more thing for US publishers to fight with their UK colleagues over – and vice versa. Ironically, though US publishers often have (or had, in an era before draconian cuts) larger biz dev budgets for online initiatives, the UK is ahead of the US in certain key areas, like mobile usage.

Retro though it is in the digital realm, perhaps it’s still important for publishers working on all aspects of the business to remember that besides Shakespeare, this is also World Book & Copyright Day.

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