Publishing Execs Talk Technology & More at Wi5

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Moderator Barry Lynn with David Young, Madeline McIntosh, and W. Drake McFeely.

The close focus on technology at last week's Winter Institute was clearly highlighted on the opening day. Just 15 minutes after Google's Dan Clancy gave booksellers an in-depth update on the Google Editions program, three leading trade publishing senior executives discussed how digitization and technological advances were affecting the book industry.

The 75-minute panel was moderated by Barry Lynn, the author of Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction (Wiley), and it featured W. Drake McFeely, president and chair of the board of directors of W.W. Norton & Company; Madeline McIntosh, president of sales, operations, and digital of Random House; and David Young, chairman and CEO of Hachette Book Group.

Coming amidst a steady steam of news reports about the recent introduction of Apple's new iPad and's dispute with Macmillan regarding the pricing of e-books (and the company's decision to suspend sales of any Macmillan titles), the panel was timely, topical, and well attended.

From an author's perspective, Lynn noted that because of technological advances since the publication of his last book, in 2005, "I spent more time on Google than in the Library of Congress" researching Cornered, and that "I ended up writing a better book because of these technologies." For publishers too, the effects of technology were significant, enabling them "to do many things they couldn't do before," noted Young.

All three executives cited a number of important developments -- ranging from print on demand and short-run printing to author-to-reader outreach via author web sites -- that had helped foster a better relationship with authors, improved communications with booksellers, and increased business efficiencies. A key result, said McIntosh, was that publishers could now "bring ideas to market in a much faster way." As Young noted, "This is basically an industry that is an art, but we can add some science."

The intersection of art and science proved an intriguing spot to discuss the evolving roles of publishers and editors, as well as of potential new e-book formats, publication timing, and pricing. McIntosh said that new technologies offered publishers an opportunity "to re-invent ourselves" as editors and to consider such ideas as shorter nonfiction works in digital formats, especially about such topical subjects as the recent earthquake in Haiti.

While noting that he believed there is "nothing better than the printed page at the moment," Young detailed how Hachette was working to include additional content for e-books, including, for example, background information about the setting in the upcoming David Baldacci novel. With a bit of wry humor, he recognized, too, the experimental nature of such early forays into e-books: "Will people find it deeply irritating? I don't know."

For indie booksellers, the topic that cut closest to the bone was the question of the scheduling and pricing of e-books, which, in Young's estimation, "has been a real problem." Regarding the pricing model of $9.99 for e-books, Young said, "I felt $9.99 was taking us down a road to doom," potentially creating a new publishing model that "devalues the books and ... the careers of the writers who have created the books." He applauded the new agency model introduced by Macmillan, which allows the publisher to set a firm consumer price and provides a uniform discount across the board to retailers.

Taking care to note that "this is Madeline McIntosh's opinion, which is not necessarily endorsed by my employer," McIntosh questioned whether there was a downside in a publishers' direct involvement in such pricing decisions and if it "would really be to the benefit of either the authors or the consumer" in delaying the publication of a title's digital edition. Bucking the expectations of consumers who want to acquire a digital edition sooner rather than later, she said, might lead to a series of unintended consequences, including purchasing another e-book, buying no book at all, or "downloading the e-book for free," which some attendees took as a gentle euphemism for digital piracy.

Another consequence of the growth of e-books, said McFeely, was Norton's increased emphasis on the publishing aesthetics, including both jackets and interior design, and all three executives underscored their companies' commitment to their core business of selling traditional books. "The majority of books consumers still want to buy are physical books," said McIntosh. --Dan Cullen