BookCamp Vancouver 2009 Wrapup

BookCamp Vancouver 2009The atmosphere at this weekend’s excellent BookCamp Vancouver 2009 was quite different than other unconferences I’ve attended in the past. For one thing, people there were taking notes using pencil and paper. And unlike other unconferences, there was an absence of laptops, cameras, and ubiquitous social media coverage; even the #bcvan09 hashtag traffic on Twitter was attenuated versus other unconferences I’ve attended.

If I were to summarize the tone of the conference in one word, that word would be ‘fear‘. The publishing world is rapidly approaching a crossroads, and it doesn’t seem like its inhabitants are any better prepared for the transition to digital media than their brethren in the music and movie industries. Sean Cranbury‘s session on digital rights management could have been about the music industry if you replaced the word ‘book’ with the word ‘song’ in the discussion. This is somewhat disturbing, since there have been numerous examples of what works and doesn’t work in digital media.

The concerns of publishers boil down to economics. Publishers are struggling to reconcile the costs of book production with consumers’ unwillingness to pay for content. Regardless of whether the content is delivered via the Internet, or as an electronic book, consumers are less and less willing to pay for content, much to publishers’ chagrin. For many attendees, I think the real shock came from comments by publishers on the time and costs associated with producing physical books:

  • Profit margins in the publishing industry are about 4%. For those of us from the software industry, 4% is an amazingly low number (software profitability runs around 30% depending on industry).
  • The timeline on book production, once a complete manuscript has been received from the author? A year and a half on average.
  • Book printing costs only account for about 20% of the cost of a book. This is surprising to many consumers who, judging by audience reactions at the conference, believe that physical production and distribution is a major component of the price of a book.
  • Author royalties comprise only 10% of the cost of a book, another fact that shocked the audience.

The part I found most concerning: a professed lack of willingness on the part of publishers to experiment. Despite widespread agreement that technology publisher O’Reilly is leading the way in revolutionizing the publishing industry, few publishers professed a willingness to take a chance and undertake experiments of their own to determine how to chart a course through these new waters. It’s disappointing, especially when O’Reilly has already created many of the new models publishers might employ to stave off extinction, such as monetizing books through new formats (finely sliced content offered as PDFs, subscription-based reference libraries), and partnering with readers during the production process.

One conversation I had with a publisher highlighted the extent of the tunnel vision: the publisher admitted that they would not only be unwilling to accept any price cut when offering books in electronic form on devices such as the Kindle, but also that they weren’t even willing to try offering books in electronic form at all. If this attitude is widespread in the industry, the publishers’ fates are already sealed. The future of publishing may rely on a new breed of author-entrepreneurs adhering to the tenets of “lean publishing” to continue in their stead.

Open Letter to Yuk Yuk’s

Note: This is the second time an entertainment establishment in Vancouver has made dramatic alterations without any acknowledgment to their customers of the changes. Last time, my wife and I went to see Spinal Tap, only to discover TicketMaster had decided to move us from the orchestra to the last row of the balcony section. It appears that entertainment groups in Vancouver simply don’t understand how to communicate changes to their customers.

Dear Yuk Yuk’s:

My wife and I attended Yuk Yuk’s last night to see the 8pm ‘Garfunkel and Oates‘ show, who were previously advertised as your headline act for the night. It was the only reason I went. Not only did Garfunkel and Oates not play the gig, there was no notice to this effect at the box office or anywhere prior to the show. It wasn’t even acknowledged by the MC that the advertised headliners weren’t going to be playing.

I am aware that you state that “Acts are subject to change without notice.”; however, this as a legal term is only defensible in cases where a player or act is physically unable to make the gig (illness, accident, detention while crossing the border due to house arrest – I’m thinking of Andy Dick here, of course). To simply gloss over the fact that the very act people came to see won’t be playing the gig and attempt to hand-wave it away under this overly-broad disclaimer is poor form and, quite frankly, insulting to your customers. In other businesses, it’s called a bait-and-switch, and it’s illegal (for a reason).

In the future, it would be useful to at least acknowledge that the acts have changed. You’ll find that customers are a lot more forgiving if you communicate the change, than if they get to the end of the show and wonder why they didn’t end up seeing the very act they paid good money to see. It’s just good business.