My Rite to Read

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

London Fare, April Getaways, and Bookish Climate

From the SubwayEarl's CourtEarl's CourtLondonBookFAIR 004Market Focus Central AtriumPenguin
PenguinBook DisplayAmazon English PENHong Kong PavillionHongKong
BOOKSMD Troubadour and MatadorAudience packed with AuthorsMatador selfpublishingLondonBookFAIR 031Panel on digital literary writing and Gamification
View the entire set of London Book Fair 2012, powered by Flickr.

The 41st London Book Fair held in Earl's Court, saw a minimum attendance of 25,000 visitors this year. They will return next year to the same venue from 15-17 April, 2013.

Trade veterans will warn you. London is overwhelming. Spread out over 60,000 square meters in two buildings, the Exhibition Area brought all the world's publishing dons under one roof. Students and industry outsiders ambled about disoriented in what was a very organised, yet cramped affair over the next three days. So when my microbiologist mate begged to accompany me, I strongly dissuaded her on the grounds that a book fair was not a book festival! (Although,  the world over, book fairs surely have different connotations, be they customer-facing or trade oriented). My prediction was, there would be no authors, no cocktails, and there certainly would not be any poetry/author signings (to some extent I was brilliantly wrong, with the odd cookbook demo thrown in). But, as I saw it there were only matchbox kiosks nudging each other, tradespeople, rights and seminar folk, top management, and lots of foreign publishers in corporate suits and shiny waxed faces, pamphleteers, and err masseur demo artistes. The China Daily for breakfast... and 1500 exhibitors from over 57 countries including first timers Brazil, Flanders, Hong Kong, Lithuania and Hungary...

This year's theme was China Market Focus 2012: New Perspectives, new Concept, including 4  publishing forums, ten high level dialogues and 11 cultural and art exhibitions that brought together over 600 Chinese participants including 181 publishing houses and 52 popular Chinese writers. This year also marked the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Britain and China! There were country pavilions for Hong Kong, Turkey, Brazil, and Jordan too. Predictably though, the areas most overwhelmed with activity, remained the sets of the Big Six, (and as I would later discover, the Digital Shop floors!) while the Market Focus exhibition floor saw plenty of restive moments and loitering spectators. Of key note, were the Love Learning seminars, and some highlights from my time there go below:

China's Publishing and Digitisation Dialogue

The Chairman of China Publishing Group Tan Yue and the Elsevier Chairman of Management Committee and Head of Global Academic and Customer Relations  Y.S. Chi, debated the ills of digitisation its slow takeover in the East, and rapid Westernization's fast proliferating gadgets. Tan Yue talked about 'The Charm of the ink' and  ultimate veneration of information,  and that even though the textbook market is the largest, the Chinese love reading novels, to which Y. S. Chi said that trade publishing has a complex readership that is not just platform driven.

An audience member asked in the context of digitisation, so was Content King? There ARE NO kings, the Elsevier official shot back, only princes (and half blooded ones, he joked). Content, distribution, packaging, promotion, everything was as much of a prince as the next thing, he added.

Self-Publishing is the Present

Walk into Matador's advice clinic, and there were hundreds of plain clothed writers (exactly like plain clothed cops) quietly and efficiently huddling into the kiosk taking down, and exchanging  copious notes on the present day reality of self-publishing. Should they, shouldn't they, and why not?

Matador's MD, Jeremy Thompson, drew a large crowd with his reassuring presentation on top quality self-publishing, Matador's reviews in the press and literary circles, and how this feisty imprint of Troubador (a well regarded independent publisher of commercial non-fiction) exceeded Amazon over quality, price and distribution of books! This is not Vanity publishing he argued; Matador has very successfully published commercially for Cambridge University Press, Random House, Elsevier, and several other big clients.

The number of writers that showed up at the fair this year were about 1500, a definite increase from last year.  'This is the first time that the fair has been actively promoting itself to writers,' wrapped up Mr. Thomson, when I asked if he was surprised by the strength of writers gathered at the fair.

Matador is the classic example of quality self-publishing co-existing with traditional publishing. Self-publishing (or anything) could never drive publishers out of jobs--all these choices could only at the very least, force publishers to get better at their existing jobs.

Digital Theater and App-Solutions

Digital is the Ozone of Publishing. Developers made their spiels. Every possible tech shop set up its stall hoping to convince you to use their advanced Publishing services. EPUB, easy Pub, Pub-lish, KoBo. Nook. Amazon. Speed dating with API developers from Nook and Pearson, and other bigger jungle of developers was cool and got me to realize that the key to a great app is great content, for which there is a BIG DEFICIT, as proved by every developer on the floor. Which is where, creative publishers were constantly sought.

Higher Education was keen to make use of this Appsolute opportunity in delivering the most accessible information to consumers with the biggest known attention deficit--students and exam givers.

Sex and the Textbook 

The textbook has never looked sexier argued panel after panel of academics. The internet was increasingly looked to as the way forward and PRINTABILITY and COPYABILITY were key components of a strong publishing product. DRM on ebooks were sureshot ways of turning off young students in the heat of urgency. Surveys tested that if price and availability were the same, majority would consent to and prefer electronic texts. Cengage, Macmillan, McGrawHill, Pearson, Wiley, SAGE and Course Smart officials were major participants in the related discussions. Also, interactivity could only be enhanced on a book by book basis, and not across platforms.

Compassionate Reading : Centralize, Communicate and Consume

Digital Sales Manager Huw Alexander talked about SAGE Publications' efforts to provide accessible content, by building strong relationships with libraries. His advice? Centralize, communicate, and consume. Among the publisher's renovation plans were: a new website landing page, partnership with Bookshare to serve those with print disabilities, the TIGAR project, and EPUB conversions (over 1000 titles were being converted as he spoke).

Pete Osborne chair of Right to Read, talked about the changing landscape of libraries in the UK, and how they should not have a disproportionate impact on those with a print disability. Osborne himself reads by touch and hearing with a device costing around £3.5 million now enabling him to read more of what he wants, than more of what's available. He said, text to speech through i-pads should allow more access to information, and make reading for all, a reality.

Metadata must identify the most diverse features of a product.

A Good Partner

Loses sleep as much as you over the future.

Contract - Copyright - Collaborate- Communicate - the 4 Cs in publishing talk.

A Crowded Planet : "Apps should not be bits of Television chopped up"

Lonely Planet CEO Stephen Palmer has been in the business since 1973 including travelling across Asia in a jeep and is the publisher of 400 travel guides covering every country in the world except Micronesia. Riding high on the success of his own Lonely Planet app that has been downloaded by over 8.5 million people so far selling about 350,000 copies in the last year alone, he explains the App marketplace is overwhelmingly Apple dominated, followed closely by Android. What worked marvelously for them was that the LP app's timing coincided with Apple's marketing of the appstore and iphone. There was also a close collaboration with Apple for the marketing for a particular phrasebook App for Mandarin pronunciations. Although, it  is a paid content business, Palmer says, you do end up having to distribute a lot of apps for free. (When the Icelandic White Ash happened some years ago, people were stuck in airports for long periods of time, a lot of apps were just given away for free). 85% apps are sold for free and the iPad generates 2.5 times more money than the Smartphone app. Everything is moving towards the freemium model.

Nonetheless Palmer's goal at the fair (and otherwise) was to include as many new languages and foreign partners, and to make sure that everyone has a guidebook in their pocket, and account for better distribution, so that people will be carrying their phones, wallets, keys and their Lonely Planet guidebooks wherever they go! Next on his app agenda are more tie ins with BBC TV, and clever partnerships around the content model, like streaming an exclusive live tour from The Vatican as an in-app luxury. So, when is an App an ebook and when is an ebook an App? An App needs more regular engagement with people and consistent updating. All developed content lives away from the device, and with the case of the iPad one would only need to change the number of pixels to fit the screen.

Innovators Henry Volans (Faber), Max Whitby (Touch Press), Adrian Laing were also present and offered their views on the relevance of the App world to publishers. Max Whitby of Touch Press showed off The Wasteland AppThe Solar System app and The Elements, and touched on similar issues with his experience in making Higher Ed Apps for the past two years.

Next in line for the year are the much awaited Shakespeare Sonnets app, as recited by actors like Patrick Stewart, with lots of illumination effects and interviews with a dozen or so academics and scholars on the sonnets, and the Leonardo Da Vinci Anatomy App from the Curator of Royal Collection of drawings with annotated translations.

Who is Social?  

The urgency of social was palpable in all that editorial, marketing and digital speak. For authors, social media was something publishers looked at as an advantage. For marketers, social media was an inexpensive way of directly reaching out inaccessible masses. So was it the job of marketing, publicity or the plain old author himself?

Social Media is impossible if you lack a context, a common ground, a purpose. An author gets social to draw readers, a publisher goes social to draw consumers, and the unemployed go social to seek stronger networks and opportunities in a marketplace that is increasingly recruiting socially. Marketers and publicists may have overlapping functions in the digital landscape, however, metrics will continue to remain a huge tool of change, and there is place for everyone, emphasised Claire Armistead the literary editor with The Guardian, who also explained how at The Guardian Books, there was a tendency for editors to want to monopolize the social media marketing as well! Overlapping functions were a good sign of change, as long as people retained their specialist skills. Redundancy was a fear that came only with nobody doing their jobs well.

Stephanie Duncan, digital media director for Bloomsbury, said she would hold EVERY author to gunpoint until they opened up a Facebook, Twitter, blogger account or even just a website. Because, that was where you found your readers, and could not let such a big potential readership die! Of course, she added, the same social media space may not work for every author depending on his personality, purpose and profile, but one must interact with one's consumers. Moreover, peer-to-peer training imparted by socially online prolific authors has been her successful initiative to get digitally dumb authors at grips with the tools and technology, and one she recommends for all publishers to look into investing their time, money and efforts in.

Jobs in Publishing

Unsurprisingly packed with students, these sessions offered the regular dose of job shopping, hungry students and employers courting each other's skill gaps. And the regular buzz on how start ups and starting up could change your life, etc. and  heart to heart tales of mucking it and making it. A hierarchy of options for funding start ups was from most recommended to least: customers, crowd funding, public funding, day job, private investment/angels.

For entrants and non-entrepreneurs, the quick how-to on getting into publishing, sits  here.

There are major skill gaps in coding, design, product management, content strategy. Where was the future? Hybrid skills, closer, stronger, deeper rooted networks, cultural and skill osmosis, deeper penetration of digital, more government responsibility. Everything of everything. Identifying and capitalising on opportunities like the collapse of the midlist, books as craft objects, new reading experiencesmobile publishing, etc.

India and China

India was being talked about in circles without necessarily being conspicuous on the schedule at all. It is after all one of the biggest English reading markets in the world, a fast maturing market with an increasing heavy middle class, and a third of its population under thirty. Ebooks may not have caught on in India, the way they have in the UK or US (which is not to say that e-reading or ereading devices have not because the i-pad has fast caught up). Moreover, there is still so much vibrant literature within the subcontinent that is keeping these markets alive, from Chetan Bhagat's homegrown stories to Annie Baobei, and then there is the gigantic textbook industry one cannot discount.

Games Writers Play

Director of The Literary Consultancy Rebecca Swift, chaired a dynamic panel on writing for the digital age. That's because they touched on gamification, and internet literature, and debated the literary and commercial merit of stories crossing over into games, much like the acclaimed fitness game, created by Naomi Alderman, of Zombies Run! selling about 100,000 copies on iphones since the two months of its launch. Annie Baobei who became an internet literary sensation at age 24 in China, also expressed her fears on the dumbing down of the internet reader in a country that has the largest internet population in the world. An overall thought provoking session, powered by onsite translators .

The last day saw a stream of kiosk parties with wine and beer flowing in most of the stalls, a jovial end to all the hectic line up of the past days.

The Village of East London

The Village of East London

I did get to hike around the village of East London when I was not night crawling on Carnaby Street. Three days were enough to glean that rent in the outer suburbs of London was a lot cheaper, with much open space, wider roads, graffiti arches, SAT NAV failure and invisible coordinates in these outskirts. Anything, to flee the zone one madness: the life of a commuting migrant holds pretty much the same narrative from Mumbai to London. The sun was smiling.

L.O.N.D.O.N. Statue
Thursday morning I arrived to a colder Scotland overtaken by sniffles, and what would famously take me down as the post London book flu. I still jog memory lane on souvenir visiting cards collected from those  three days of back-to-back seminaring, workshopping and speed networking! London attracts commerce attracts youth.

What does London mean to YOU? 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Is it the year of the textbook or the dictionary?

Scotswoman Vivian Marr speaks French and is the head of language acquisitions at Oxford University Press. She talked at length about the strides her publishing house has taken to spread educational content across digital platforms since its foundation before Columbus went to America! Today living in Edinburgh and travelling a week a month to London, her hands are full, revealed the woman who has worked with every dictionary publisher she can name. The goal and mission of OUP the world's largest university press is  to reach as many markets as possible. OUP has always been at the helm of digitisation of information services with majority of its sales being in Academic (47%) and ELT (31%). OUP goes about seeking big partners in libraries, universities, public libraries and consortia of universities--their biggest market being institutional consumers. They have often invested in long term high end projects like the Chinese-English dictionary scaling £5m or more. They operate much unlike a trade publishing house, where the pressure is on to deliver short term objectives more quickly where there are shareholders and short term inheritors. 

With the rise of the free online dictionaries, the sales of the Oxford Dictionaries declined. This was quickly spotted and the company used XML to move online with big digital licenses. OED online is now an ad sponsored free dictionaryDictionaries being an integral product for OUP, who publish bilingual dictionaries in over 60 different languages, OED being the top dictionary in the English language having over 600,000 words, and being a very important source of revenue, even as an iPad app. OUP was  a quick forerunner in the digitisation of information. They've been very active in this sphere since 15 years, with over 11,000 digital products, online reference works, mobile apps; digitisation has increased their reach—be it digital content or digital learning platforms—a key part of their strategy is digital, with sales doubling in the past three years. OUP now has 150 mobile apps, 28 online products, including on subjects like medicine, law, and Oxford Scholarship online, and it has more than 400 Higher education resource centers. Their online products reach EVERY country with subsidised costs for lesser developed markets. 

Marr is very involved with global licensing to major technology companies and more lately with sentiment analysis, which she elaborates, is a brand management tool that companies are using,  by collecting vast amounts of content to analyse what people are thinking about a brand, product, behaviour or a personality (this is often conducted for politicians, products or trends). 

OUP's appointed editors or 'delgates' are presided over by the Vice Chancellor of the University. A rigorous scrutiny and editorial process is put through each manuscript. OUP's online products reach every country, and while their matter across all platforms is similar, it differs in size (depending on space). The success of OUP is largely commercial, she reveals with pride.

With UK's big educational publishers like SAGE, Pearson, Cambridge University Press and OUP riding big initiatives in digital content and delivery, one wonders if the C/OUP will be led by the textbook, or the dictionary?!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Happy 10th Birthday Takladweep!

Exactly a decade ago today, I was a schoolgirl, emceeing a book release function. The Uzbek Ambassador to India at that time, released my debut novel in my school's outdoor amphitheater during a very sunny morning assembly. A panel comprising two of my favourite (rival) classmates, engaged in a vibrant book discussion about the characters and plot in Adventure on Takladweep. The audience asked lots of questions. I replied in long form. Newspapers and TV stations dialled in for sound bytes and one-on-one interviews. I felt full, and then the hollow ache of having ticked off a dream. Ruskin Bond's hand written letter to me arrived as a pleasing surprise. But memories from ten years back, feel so far away now!

Today, as I brace myself for new content and new media in new classrooms with new teaching tools, I am beginning to reinterpret the publishing environment and understand what it means to take the onus and responsibility to publish something (not entirely your own) as I wrap up MetroGame, the travelling App for Urban Professionals. There are no static processes. Good content will flourish, nourish and be cherished, and that is the bottomline. Apps will pass too. Publishing is for believers, die hard optimists and cautious pessimists alike. This is the present, tense. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In search of an Icon

Been trying out some icon designs for my Travelling App for the Urban Professional. It's an interesting process, and i think with icon design you can get away with lower resolution images than you would in a book cover. I need something not grainy, not noisy, but simple and expressive. It's kind of hard, but it's like settling for the perfect gift. You'll know it when you hit it. Kind of proud of my publisher logo, though --says all I mean.  

App Thumbnail # 1
Why so grainy? Beautiful image, low res. Blurrrrrrrrrrrrr. Is a volcano misleading? Will people suspect/expect sorcery? This is from Fjallbacka, Sweden.

                                                                         Draft #2

Right now I prefer version 2, but I'm still not happy with the quality of my image. It resembles a postage stamp though.