Frankfurt: The baby and the digital bath water

By Stephen Bateman, Publisher and Managing Director, David & Charles Limited

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The digital dimension of publishing was undoubtedly the most catalytic subject of the Frankfurt Book Fair last week.

It was palpable just how fast the digital flywheel is turning in the book publishing industry, and I doubt that Frankfurt will ever look or feel the same again. I would be surprised if many publishers return to their booths over the next two years, as we see the battleground of publishing split into two camps: the winners of digital and community initiatives, and the losers in a struggle that grounded them in an inability to change.

The word digital was on everyone’s lips; even the very big co-edition packagers, whose core business is building multinational print runs, were feeling the pressure to embrace digital media. It is no longer viable for any serious print media company to do the same old same old. We must change.

The questions that puzzled were not Why? or When?, but How? and What? – “What are you doing with digital technology to create new revenue streams to offset the downturn elsewhere?”

The challenge presented by this change is universal and applies to all players, regardless of size. Struggles, of course, will be different for everyone, but the root necessity is the same: change or become extinct.

Darwin is standing on the doorstep of our industry.

Few will have come away from Frankfurt with their fuel tank full of books; any publisher that filled up on books will flood their carburetor and kill their engine. To fill up on books for 2011 is to commit suicide.

Those that will be feeling energized by Frankfurt 2009 will be the publishers who came away with a bootload of fresh ideas to help change and evolve their business model. These publishers will get a new lease on life as they implement plans to refocus and rewire their businesses, and deepen their relationships with readers. They will have found new ways to make their core content work harder for less; ideas also to kick-start new revenue streams and innovate with product so that it does not only fit the printed page, but also the digital and mobile reading devices and applications that are about to flood the market in response to readers seeking convenience.

If walking past the booths of the usual suspects in Hall 8 did one thing for me this year, it was to reinforce the need to continue to scale up our company’s digital capabilities, and stay ahead of fast-changing consumer behavior.

That does not mean throwing out the baby with the bath water, but we do have to change the bath water if we are to save the baby.

Stephen Bateman is focused on change in the media industry and on providing ways to lead effective organizational change to better meet the needs of an entire generation of new media consumers, profitably. He is the Publisher and Managing Director of David & Charles Limited, an international publisher of illustrated non-fiction books, and a division of F+W Media, Inc.

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