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Mindset over matter

Timo Boezeman on the digital transition of a centuries-old analog industry.

The challenges publishers face today trying to transform a centuries-old industry into (arguably) an almost completely new business traverse every sector of the industry. Beyond all the challenges with technology and changing business landscapes, however, lies the root problem with the transition to digital: publishers’ mindset, says Timo Boezeman (@boezeman), digital publisher and non-fiction editor for A.W. Bruna Publishers and a speaker at TOC Frankfurt. In the following interview, Boezeman addresses issues of territorial rights, technological opportunities and DRM, but says publishers must first accept that “change is a must.”

What is the largest hurdle publishers must overcome in the transition to digital?

timo-boezeman.jpgTimo Boezeman: The largest hurdle in the transition is the mindset. Publishing is one of the oldest industries around and now has to deal with a transition from analog to digital at a speed that is at least twice as fast as the music industry faced. What I see around me in the Netherlands — and I don’t know if this is or was the same in the US — is that the publishers don’t want to learn from the mistakes made by the music industry, and they make every mistake all over again: DRM, high pricing, not enough titles available, technical difficulties due to the different readers and types of ebooks, etc. If they would just see that the world is changing rapidly, that digital will be bigger than analog soon, and that change is a must, it would help us all — including consumers.

What are some of the global obstacles to digital innovation in regard to DRM?

Timo Boezeman: This is a difficult question. In the US and the UK, you have closed ecosystems like Amazon, Google, B&N, and iBookstore. In the Netherlands, we don’t; none of these players are here yet. Right now, we have one file type: EPUB, which is supported by all the ereaders — including the iPad — available here and by all the ebook retailers. Most publishers use DRM to protect their titles, though this is easy to get around if you want to. The ebook price is generally about 75% of the hardcover price; the price of paper books is set by the publisher over here — by law — and can’t be altered by retailers. This results, for now, in ebook retailers not lowering the prices of ebooks, even though it is allowed — the fixed price is only for paper books. It also results in consumers saying ebooks are too expensive.

To come back to my comparison with the US: if we had an Amazon — a big retailer with its own ebook format and reader — it would matter less if the system had DRM or not. But in our situation, there are several issues: first, getting an ebook on an ereader; second, reading it — you need to register with Adobe to use the DRM’d ebooks on some readers and tablets; and, lastly, switching between retailers and/or devices.

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How will cloud technology affect digital publishing going forward?

Timo Boezeman: Cloud technology is something I believe in very much, but it is a difficult topic because of the mindset. This technology will support reading because if books are in the cloud, you can also let readers read them by subscription instead of buying them one by one, like Spotify with music or like 24Symbols already is doing with books. And indeed, one step further, you’ve got the potential for books as browser URLs, which HTML5 will make possible. This offers other advantages — you don’t have to program for specific operating systems, for example. The biggest challenge in this, however — just as with music — is the money that can be made. Spotify shows that money can be made, but that it is still a very low profit margin. Should we see this as “better than nothing” because otherwise it would be missed income or illegally downloaded? Or as “the start of something more” — growing revenues, maybe even a change in the mindset of consumers that content is worth paying for, so prices eventually will rise again?

What do you think is more important, access or ownership?

Timo Boezeman: Both, because I believe in what I call “tastes.” You should provide a different taste for each consumer. There will always, or at least for decades to come, be people who want paper books. Maybe their demands will rise — higher quality, full color, etc. — but paper will be here for some time. Then you have people who read digital books, but they want to own their content. And last, you have people who don’t want or have the need to own digital content, but want access to it when they want, how they want and on the device they choose. But if you put everything in perspective, I would say that access is a trend coming to the book industry, which until now has been ruled by ownership.

Will we eventually see an end to territorial rights?

Timo Boezeman: In the way they are arranged now, yes. One other thing that has to change in the mindset of the publishing industry is to start thinking of the consumer first — not of the bookstore or retailer you want to sell your books to, but the end user of your product. Do they benefit from territorial rights? No. They only suffer from it — it means that titles are not available everywhere at the same moment. Which, when the interest in a title is high, only encourages piracy. Just look at the film industry for examples. But that doesn’t mean those rights have no reason to exist; it means that along with rights, there also must be thought of the consumer. And this is all for the good of the publishing industry because we all want consumers who like our products to pay for them, don’t we?

This interview was edited and condensed.

Associated photo on home and category pages: Men with printing press, circa 1930s by Seattle Municipal Archives, on Flickr

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