Digital is not all plain sailing!

Image copyright of – David Nicholls, Author of ‘One Day’ and ‘Us’

Concluding the Digital Minds Conference was Digital Minds Question Time, chaired by Richard Mollet, CEO of the PA.  Panellists included Charlie Redmayne of HarperCollins, Mandy Hill of Cambridge University Press, Andrew Barker of Liverpool University and Dan Kieran of Unbound, the online authors’ service.  Questions were unrehearsed and taken from the floor.

One of the more challenging questions was ‘How far along are you from merely diversifying sales from reproduced text [to a digital format]?  Charlie Redmayne said that for HarperCollins the focus was on creating a storytelling experience and making sure there were enough channels.  “We’ll never be ahead of the curve with e-books.” For big trade publishers, most of the revenues still come from traditional publishing.  Mandy Hill said the biggest diversification has come from the shift to Gold Open Access in certain areas.  Andrew Barker said that the Library at Liverpool University still spends a fair percentage of its budget on traditional textbooks.  The puzzle is that this doesn’t suit students’ needs.  Liverpool is, therefore, trying to create its own e-textbooks: it’s working with the OU to achieve this.  Dan Kieran said it was the objective of Unbound to revolutionise the author’s direct connection with the audience and monetise it differently.  Its USP is to make more money from electronic publishing for authors, whose profession is currently ‘in crisis’.

Richard Mollet asked, given the diversity of these responses, whether authors, publishers and librarians all learn from each other?  Mandy Hill said it was all about motivation and where the writing fits in.  From the audience, Sam Missingham, also of HarperCollins, asked whether it was possible to teach people to think digitally just as much as commercially.  Dan Kieran said it was.  He’d taught a course at UCL and hired two of the best students immediately.  Mandy Hill said that many of us try to think digitally but we didn’t grow up with digital, so we have to recruit people to whom it does come naturally.  “We’re not here to produce books and journals, we’re here to fulfil our mission.  It does mean thinking completely differently.”  Andrew Barker said that academic librarians are quite ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking digitally.  The challenge is taking their customers, especially academics, with them.  Charlie Redmayne said it was the publisher’s job to recruit people who do understand the new skills required and empower them.

Panel members were also asked what the greatest digital red herring was that they had experienced.  Charlie Redmayne said that for HarperCollins it had been developing separate websites for most of its authors, circa 2008.  Dan Kieran said that most publishers have made a major strategic error in not wanting to go directly to the consumer.  Mandy Hill said it was investing in the older versions of apps and the CDROM: both illustrated the dangers of the people in charge not really being competent to make decisions because they lacked understanding.  Andrew Barker also said that it was the danger of people who didn’t understand digital properly jumping on the bandwagon.