Live update from the Frankfurt Book Fair

26 October 2009

Live update?

I’ve been back from Frankfurt a week now and this is my first post in weeks. So much for the live update that I had planned.

The problem is that the wireless connection on my Macbook Pro is broken, a major hassle that made communication at Frankfurt rather difficult. Must get it fixed (when I can afford to be without the laptop for a few days – sigh).

Recessionary blues

Anyway, Frankfurt was somewhat subdued, far fewer editorial types in evidence than usual and the usual hype over bidding wars for the latest Dan Brown or whatever was unconvincing. Even the end-of-day receptions at different stands seemed ho-hum this year.

But the significant revelation for me was when one of our regular buyers, a guy called Holger, pointed out that the aisles in Hall 8, where as usual our stand was (and where most of the other English-language presses hang out), were wider than usual. So I strolled to the end of the hall and looked. Holger was right. There were about 3 rows of booths fewer than usual. The recession is biting, if only a bit.

Sadly, one of the casualties was The Guardian, whose attendance in its usual slot in row B was in the fair catalogue but at the last minute was replaced by some publisher or other. Normally, the good people from The Guardian dish out free copies of the newspaper, hoping we’ll be tempted to subscribe. Obviously, not enough of us have been doing so.

More e-readers, so what?

Every few days another e-reader is launched. There were a few at the fair. One looked interesting but incredibly the exhibitor had it behind a plastic shield so actually twiddling with it was quite impossible, a huge turn-off.

Just before Frankfurt, Amazon went (almost) global with the Kindle. Interestingly, this did not seem to make the splash at the fair that I assume Amazon had expected. The Kindle has some nice features (not needing to upload its content from a PC, for instance) but increasingly its power-saving e-ink technology is being seen as drab (no colour) and the machine lacks some of the wow stuff you’ll find on an iPhone. And rumours persist of an Apple tablet that blows the Kindle and the other e-readers out of the water.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, despite the ever frenetic hype about digitization and e-sales, I felt there was a general wait-and-see attitude beginning to be noticeable among publishers. Their core profits remain in print sales, despite 400% increases in digital sales here and there (four times very little is not much more, no matter how impressive the increase may sound).

Also, publishers remain wary about Amazon getting to dominate the e-book market. But Google’s ‘land grab’ (as some have put it) in the e-world is potentially more revolutionary. To me, it seems more and more likely that the Google Book Settlement – an American legal settlement but with global effects – will be challenged by the European Union.

And if Apple and Microsoft enter the fray? All hell could break loose.

The Indians are coming

Finally, I found it interesting that this year the guest country was China (you may have heard about the ham-fisted attempts to stifle the voices of dissidents at the fair) but in business terms the Indians made a far greater impression. Not only were Indians selling a profusion of different publishing services (they now dominate globally in pre-press services and maybe have already overtaken the Chinese in printing services) but Indian publishers are increasingly visible – and confident – as buyers as well as sellers of publishing rights. As always, my various Indian visitors were charming, often witty.

In contrast, the Chinese were only interested in selling, and little thought seemed to being put into getting onto the wavelengths of Western publishers, i.e. into tuning into how to open their wallets.

An interesting contrast.

Why do publishers hate edited volumes?

2 October 2009

Not all publishers hate edited volumes; I don’t. But there are compelling reasons why publishers are reluctant to consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

Number 1 reason: the conference proceedings.

In the ‘good old days’, it was common to produce a proceedings volume as a tangible result of a conference (otherwise an ephemeral event) but generally the number of copies were limited, often only going to the participants. As part of the hyping up of the academic world that we have witnessed these last few decades, there has been a push to give these proceedings (and their conferences) more weight by their publication as ‘real books’.

For a while publishers were happy to produce and libraries to buy almost anything that moved. But then came the collapse of the library market (described elsewhere), a growing global rash of conferences and a glut of often incoherent volumes edited by hapless conference organizers with few clues about editing books.

And the result? There are a few publishers whole entire raison d’être seems to be to publish tarted-up conference proceedings, and they look to do well in this line of business. But, today, many publishers will not touch edited volumes even with a barge pole, while a lot of others are deeply mistrustful of any multi-author volumes offered and will run a mile if mention is made of an originating conference.

Which is a great pity, actually, because there are also compelling reasons why publishers should consider accepting an edited volume when offered it.

All too often – because the barriers to getting a journal article or monograph published are much higher (and usually it takes longer, too) – an edited volume is the first publication in which new, innovative research from young scholars arriving in their field is make known. From hearsay, I understand that some often mediocre volumes sell well because of the attractions of maybe only two or three of their chapters. (With the increased possibility of buying e-chapters, however, I would expect such a halo effect to diminish and the decline in sales of edited volumes to worsen.)

Moreover, edited volumes can offer cross-disciplinary insights that a single author would struggle to find. There are, indeed, examples of excellent collections where the collaboration of many minds on a single subject, perhaps from different disciplines, brings about real breakthroughs. Such outstanding works often suffer, though, from the general taint attached to edited volumes.

In other words, do not despair if you are being pressured by the departmental mandarins to edit a ‘book of the conference’ in order to justify their funding priorities and events programme. The experience need not be bad. Indeed, there may be very good reasons to offer yourself as editor. Editing a book could be a way for you to build your academic network and gain name recognition in a wider circle. You might feel that your field needs a collaborative volume on a particular subject, and that there is nobody else who can make it happen, or happen well. Perhaps you have to offer a route to publication in order to attract good contributions to a workshop or conference you are convening. Or maybe it is just simply your turn.

But, if your editing experience is to be positive (even an outstanding success), then you do need to approach the task in certain ways to maximize such success. How? That is the subject of a later post (or read these pointers now in Chapter 4 of our book).

Happy editing!