Can’t do without But staying hungry despite absorbing so much

Why finding critical information about international book markets and players is such a complicated thing, explains Ruediger Wischenbart, Founder of Content and Consulting, Vienna, Austria.

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“Why don’t I know my colleagues in Paris, or in London?” Sven Merten asked me that seemingly innocent question back in 2007, during a casual visit in Berlin. He just had started his tenure at the leading German trade publication about the book industry. I was puzzled, yet not for the first time in my career in that industry.

“How big is the global book industry? I’m sure you can tell me!” This was another simple question that had hit me even earlier, in 1998, when I was a fresh hire as ‘press officer’ and head of communication for the Frankfurt Book Fair, the leading platform for book professionals to meet with their international peers. I blushed, as I had no idea – and was certain to be the only ignorant person in the company. Well, it turned out that I was wrong. No one had that figure.

Literature, which so often comes between book covers, is obviously a global, transnational affair. Writers’ works travel nicely across borders between territories and languages, thanks to translations. And international book fairs have been set up on all continents, not the least to facilitate the trade in rights and licenses to launch such transnational careers of works and their creators, with literary agents as gatekeepers. I always put up a grin wondering why these traders call themselves ‘agents’, as if serving in secrecy, and indeed, the world of agenting is full of secrecy.

But these special go-betweens put aside, how many book people share the knowledge of which are the top 3 publishing or book selling operators in, say the US, China, Germany, France, or in the Spanish language! The list roughly follows a ranking of book markets by turnover– with the exception of India, of course. But who, outside of India and a few specialists in London, would have an idea of what is going on in Delhi’s Ansari Road. Okay, I am a bit nostalgic here, as this crowded street is probably less and less the industry’s center of gravity anymore.

Global yet parochial…

The book business has become global for some time, yet it remains astoundingly parochial in its identity. And that ‘identity’ is the bread and butter for those who report on the industry, as trade media, obliged to carefully look at their revenue and reason of being which derives almost exclusively from their respective local sponsors – and not some distant global accounts.

The industry has gone global in force in the past quarter of a century – think of Amazon, started in Seattle in 1994, think of Penguin Random House, becoming the first truly global publisher in 1998 with the acquisition of New York based Random House, the world’s largest consumer book publisher, by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.

But all spending, even by the big global players in publishing, in distribution and even in services, is almost exclusively local.

On that background, it hardly comes as a surprise that the trade press which covers all the small and occasionally big events and developments mostly from a local angle: What relevance has this new book, this takeover, or this new consumer trend, for an impact for my readership (and, related, my sponsors)? The ‘international perspective’ is at best a second thought.

This approach is not without reason, as in a global perspective, the book business is strictly segmented and radically divided along a complex system of distinctions: Global English language markets have little in common with all the rest, while in regions like the Indian subcontinent, the English and the local language worlds differ hugely. China is a universe in its own right. Japan similar, with the surprising singularity of spinning off, with truly global reach, just one very local particularity, which are the fantastic worlds of Manga. The Spanish language is both governed out of Barcelona, and yet producing ever more clearly distinct territorial entities in Latin America and in the US. Europe has become very insular, not as one island, but an archipelago of many different and highly diverse entities. The Arab book world, despite its 300 million strong linguistic scope, has remained both a small reading continent, and a deeply fragmented territory by national tariff and other restrictions. And I haven’t even mentioned Sub-Saharan Africa, nor Central Asia, Russia, Pakistan, Manila’s Wattpad young urbanites’ narratives, nor self-publishing altogether, and so much more.

Need of trade magazines…

Magazine publishers must be practical people, or they run their company straight into the next wall. But increasingly, they risk falling into an ever wider opening gap. Over the past several years – and this is not a primarily pandemic effect – book trade magazines focus more than ever on very granular news, the newest book launches, some authors’ debut books, and of course new hires, promotions and retirements. The first category sells advertisements, the others flatter those who make decisions on publishers’ spending budgets.

Here come the problems:

• Consumer habits transform rapidly, and these shifts to ever more complex patterns have been further accelerated by the pandemic. These changes are not specific to books, but have books – or a form of delivery, like bookshops – embedded in a much wider scope of fragmentation and specialization. And this is only a very oversimplified description of a deeply fundamental transformation, which is hardly covered by book industry media;

• The transformation of company processes – at best highly digitized, integrated and data driven, resulting ideally in partially de-centralized company structures, paradoxically – gives a big advantage to large and strong players in the industry, in both publishing and distribution (including retail – and this means Amazon, yet not only Amazon), putting the smaller actors, who often create new cultural perspectives and diversity into a stranglehold;

• New entrants storm onto the field, from all sides, introducing new practices, challenging the traditional owners of the marketplace and the readers’ attention span;

• We confront a difficult chicken-and-the-egg black hole, which unsettles stakeholders between the over-complex data situation and the resulting ‘know-it-all-anyway’ among traditional operators in the book world.

To illustrate my last point: We did an in-depth sales data analysis on the famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood, and the impact of the very successful TV series adaptation of her work in The Handmaid’s Tale.

The data we found for the German market showed a hug peak in book sales at a certain moment – which we saw as a direct impact of the series among Atwood’s well established well-educated middle-class readership. The ‘over complexity of data’ was that the series was not aired on German public or private TV, or on Netflix, but as a promotional special on a novel telco mobile phone directed platform.

A double shift, we reasoned, from the book to a TV series, and from mainstream linear watching to mobile casual consumption, resulting indirectly in an unanticipated boon for the book publisher. That publisher however was not aware of the unexpected opportunity and did not leverage it beyond the short peak – as opposed to another, also highly traditional book house who succeeded in turning the Elena Ferrante frenzy into a multi-year bonanza.

The international ‘trade magazine businesses’ have been broadly challenged for well over a decade, not just in the media segment. In that same time however, data driven services like Thomson Reuters have flourished and expanded. Well, they catered to highly profitable and dynamically expanding sectors like finance and health.

But I must insist that the book trade publications must take their learnings from these developments, given that data aggregation are commonplace and increasingly affordable – provided smart approaches. There is no excuse to not extending their portfolio and reaching out to audiences beyond their traditional crowd. At the end, they find themselves on the same, thorny path to either adapt and innovate.

Ruediger Wischenbart is the founder of Content and Consulting, based in Vienna, Austria. Specializing in international book and culture industry reports and related professional conference programs, current initiatives include the annual “Global 50” international publishing ranking (www.wischenbart.com/ranking), the Digital Consumer Book Barometer (www.global-ebook.com) and the ReBoot Books conference series (www.reboot-books.com). He co-authored, with Miha Kovac, the chapter on “Globalization” in the “Oxford Handbook of Publishing” (2019) and writes a blog on international book industry developments at www.booklab.info . He founded PubMagNet, a network of leading international book trade magazines in 2008.

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