Is the publishing industry’s business model sustainable? That was the question for the London Book Fair’s 2012 CEO panel, chaired by Association of American Publishers president Tom Allen. With the industry facing “seismic change,” Allen said it was a fascinating time to be involved, and characterized his role at AAP as working to establish “rules of the road,” that will allow the publishing industry to survive, and thrive, mainly through copyright advocacy and legislative efforts. On that front Allen acknowledged that 2012 has yielded some “spectacular failures,” namely, the failures SOPA/PIPA, the controversial, publisher-backed copyright legislation in the U.S. That failure, Allen, noted, highlighted a new reality for publishers—they now compete with new, big industries with sometimes divergent business and legislative agendas—Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft.
The first CEO to address the question of sustainability was Donald Katz, CEO of digital audio publisher Audible.com, now part of Amazon. Katz drew on his experience as an author, and with booksellers, as well as in the transition of audio from tapes and CDs to digital, observing the publishing business has always been in flux. He then seized on a theme that’s become popular at this year’s fair—that publishing must become more consumer-oriented. “Publishers should never start another imprint,” he noted, saying that imprints were inward facing models, and instead should focus on “developing consumer brands.” He also noted that territorial rights should go away. “It’s a global economy.”
Katz was followed by John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound, a reader-supported funding and publishing platform. Mitchinson said the current publishing model was “probably not sustainable,” and said there was a lot of “bad karma” in publishing. “Publishers like to come here to parade their inadequacy,” he quipped, “talk about how bad they are doing.” But publishers haven’t done a bad job of delivering content, he observed, as reading culture is in fact surging. Nevertheless, he described the publishing business as “broken,” and as madness, where books don’t earn out advances, retailers get high discounts, publishers lie to authors about how well their books are doing, and say no to everybody. Like Katz, Mitchinson also pegged the key problem for publishers as a lack of connection to readers, as publishers have traditionally outsourced that “critical piece” of the value chain to retailers. He urged a model “that brings readers and writers together,” that was format neutral, and that would help turn readers into “marketers.”