Simon and Schuster CEO: We still don’t get e-publishing

US e-book sales, 2002-2010. Source: Neilsen BookScan, International Digital Publishing Forum, AFR.

The Australian Financial Review, paradoxically one the best newspapers for coverage of the Australian cultural industries even as its own circulation dwindles away towards marginality, has an excellent article on e-publishing today.

In an ironic twist, you can’t actually see it online, because the geniuses at Fairfax are still firewalling their content the internet. (Great business strategy, guys). This means that the AFR‘s typically excellent Katrina Strickland is denied to web readers, just as today’s article by Emma Connors is.

No matter: you’re humble correspondent still likes to read newspapers and has gone out and bought a physical copy of one.

The article contains a long and interesting interview with Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy.

In 2007 the New York based publisher began digitising 12,000 of its backlist titles, and creating a digital distribution network. It was a leap of faith that cost ‘close to eight figures’, says Reidy, who laughs when asked about the return on investment.

“I would say there has not been enough of one yet,” says Reidy.

“Some of those titles are not even available for sale as e-books because we are still clearing the necessary agreements with authors from the deep back catalogue, making sure the contractual work is done.”

The quotes from Reidy are not particularly groundbreaking, but what the article does reveal is how publishers continue to struggle with the cultural implications of the transformation of their industry – from a creator of bespoke physical objects, to the digital distributor of bulk creative commodities.  As Reidy tells Connors,

“We are trying to build on our experience physical sales to make sense of digital, but there’s no doubt we are experimenting. No one feels they have the answer yet.

We don’t know if we will sell more books overall because it is easier for people to buy online where they just have to push a button.

We are not sure if the cultural role books have played – one that is so central – will be maintained as the digital model progresses.

These are all questions that are coming up.”

In other words, publishers are a l0t like newspaper editors and journalists: in deep, deep denial.

I think I can answer those questions really quickly: Will more books be sold online? Yes. Will the central cultural role of books continue? No.

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