Interview with Rüdiger Wischenbart
For podcast release Monday, March 9, 2015
KENNEALLY: Coming to the German capital, Berlin, on April 27th and 28th, the annual Publishers’ Forum bears a name that somewhat obscures its ambitions. Attendees number from dozens of publishing houses across Europe and the world, but also from the worlds of video games, film and television, and even comics.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I am Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.
For reasons both challenging and exciting, the digital transformation of the book industry has closed the spaces separating competitors and colleagues across the spectrum of media. The Publishers’ Forum examines this dramatic shift in a search for answers on how to reconstruct publishing. The 2015 conference is the first to be organized by Rüdiger Wischenbart, and he joins me now from Vienna. And Rüdiger, welcome back to Beyond the Book.
WISCHENBART: Hello, Chris, I’m happy to be here.
KENNEALLY: Well, we’re happy to have you join us. And you’re here in a very new way. You’ve been a frequent guest on Beyond the Book, and we’ll people about your background, but then look forward to bringing you into this new role as the director of the Publishers’ Forum. Rüdiger Wischenbart is the founder of Content and Consulting based in Vienna, which specializes in surveying international culture and publishing markets. He is editor and publisher of the Global e-book Report, the global publishing market survey for the International Publishers Association and the global ranking of the publishing industry, updated annually since 2007. Rüdiger Wischenbart serves as director for international affairs at Book Expo, and coordinates its global market forum. This is the first year, Rüdiger Wischenbart, that you will be serving as director of the Publishers’ Forum which, for the last ten years, was organized by Helmut von Berg, who stepped down at the end of the last conference. This must be an exciting opportunity for you. Just for listeners who are not familiar with the Publishers’ Forum, what sets the Publishers’ Forum apart from other publishing conferences?
WISCHENBART: I guess it’s quite arguably the most senior conference for the publishing community that we have in Germany, and one of the most senior in continental Europe. And we came to understand, in the past few years, that the transformation of the digital publishing environment is not at all following the same path in all different markets. So having the largest non-English language market from Europe are the focal point, and discuss how is that transformation going on in Germany and in similar ways in other European markets, like the Netherlands or France or Italy, is a quite outstanding opportunity. So we’re quite excited to have that conference, which, as you said, reaches out way beyond the pure German or Germanic parameters.
KENNEALLY: Indeed, and what’s interesting about the digital world, of course, is that while some things seem very familiar indeed, there are important differences as you move across national boundaries. So even though we live in a global marketplace, national boundaries, national approaches to various industries still really matter. We won’t go into it in great detail, but certainly the German approach to the book publishing marketplace has some important differences from, say, what our North American listeners may be accustomed to. Indeed, just recently, a group of players in the German publishing industry have united to try to form a kind of competitor to Amazon, which I think would be a very interesting development, were it ever to happen here in the U.S., as well.
WISCHENBART: Well, yes, that’s just one example. In Germany, we have a fixed book price for printed books which pretty much extends also to e-books, as well, and we have a competitor to Amazon who came even to be on par or slightly stronger in some regards than Amazon with its Kindle e-books, which shows you that you have various approaches. E-books are different, also in their pricing strategy and pricing structure, stay much closer to the printed book. Which also for some brings up a problem because it slows down the penetration of e-books, obviously, with the readers when there is not really a very attractive alternative to the printed book by the digital format.
So what we more and more understand is that when we talk about that, it’s too shortsighted to just say we look at e-books. E-books are just a shortcut for a much wider and much more deep and complex transformation of the entire value chain of the book, and that’s probably another specialty of the Publishers’ Forum because it’s very strongly desired, also, by the technical sides of the debate – by software, by what IT as an approach to publishing has an impact. We see for instance how the entirety of publishing companies are in transformation driven by, among other things, heavy investments in digital technologies.
So we try to focus, on the one hand, on those familiar key parameters of the market – how many books are sold. For some publishing houses, particularly the larger ones, they are up in the two digits in the second year, perhaps, so they start to generate really significant revenues, but at the same time really try to trace the entirety of the transformation of the ecosystem of book publishing. That’s making the Publishers’ Forum in Berlin quite special.
KENNEALLY: Indeed. While the choices that publishers can make in this new digital environment are many, if not seemingly – well, I won’t say infinite, but certainly extremely numerous, the resources are limited. There are four main themes of the 2015 conference. The first one, not surprisingly, is about strategy and money. If we’re going to make decisions about investment, those are going to be very limited. Tell us how money changes things in the publishing world today?
WISCHENBART: Well, one of the key questions is when you want to grow – grow is an important challenge and goal – how can you do this? Just by sticking to what you used to do over decades in a market that is overall flat? Or how can you go beyond your model? Do you need to go beyond your business model? Then you may end up ending to ask, OK, can I transform like professional publishing companies have done with subscription models?
But here in Europe we have a very difficult debate about subscription models or flat rate models because some publishers are afraid that they rather ruin their traditional way of making money. So very quickly you end up in an entire chain of questions that you have to ask. One additional factor is we see in Germany, as in the other western market, a huge and mounting pressure towards consolidation. You just had the announcement a few months ago that Holtzbrinck, one of the big conglomerates in Germany, is acquiring Springer Media, one of the leading academic publishers in the world. What does this mean, and how come that a privately owned company is taking over one held by a private equity fund? So you get to the core of the debate very quickly when you talk about money.
And then that brings you directly to the second aspect, which is the second main topic that we chose: IT Goes Center Stage. That used to be used to be – information technology – some kind of cost factor. When we decided a strategy, we were aware that you had to spend some money on innovating your technology. Today very often it’s the other way around. You start thinking about how can technology impact and help me in what I want to achieve, and that is driving strategy. So that’s the kind of questions that we try to address.
KENNEALLY: It’s really quite interesting, Rüdiger, because as you say, this relationship between investment and technology is one that seems to have flipped a bit. Certainly another aspect of the industry that has flipped is the relationship with the customer. The customer of a sort was, at one point, the bookseller. Increasingly today the customer is the reader, and this raises a number of questions, both on the marketing side as well as just with regard to technology – the collection of data about this customer, and, indeed, that is the third theme for the conference, Know Your Customer and Don’t Be Afraid.
WISCHENBART: Because for many publishers – traditional publishers – it seemed, at first, to be a threat. Oh, my God, I have to somehow get in touch with my end consumer. How can I do that? That kind of question. We see new companies coming into the German market saying, OK, we provide these data that you need to have. So then the next question is, with a limited amount of resources, particularly among medium-sized to smaller companies, how can I digest all these data and what do I do about it? And number three, we see from platforms like (inaudible) that we mentioned, but also from the early stages and the experiences of flat rate services that the user habits of readers is, indeed, changing. So we need to track and ask ourselves, what does this change in the user in the reading behavior bring for the publisher, in terms of opportunities, but also in terms of concerns.
KENNEALLY: Well, indeed. We are speaking today with the director of the Publishers’ Forum coming to Berlin on April 27th and 28th, Rüdiger Wischenbart. The last of the themes for the conference is Publishing Goes Pop. You were speaking about the audience just now and the choices that they have. We are looking at a world where books are immediately adjacent on the screen with film, with video games, with television, with even just simply YouTube videos. So really this could amount to not only a confusion in the marketplace for book publishers, but a kind of a clash of cultures. The audiences that they are trying to relate to are ones that they may know nothing about and have no experience with.
WISCHENBART: I think you can see this juxtaposing two terms, two words. Publishers were used to cater to readers, and now suddenly you have fans. Fans think totally differently from readers. They are more fragmented, they have a different attention span, they are more enthusiastic, but they also they want to be ahead all the time, so they try to grab something new once they have digested something. And that brings, almost automatically, a switch from releasing just one (inaudible) like books because can offer them all different kinds of (inaudible) book content. Games, movies – you can switch between different media platforms, etc. So fans are really a totally different tribe but these tribes of fans are getting more and more important for publishers. That’s why we invited people who are already familiar with that changing culture.
KENNEALLY: Indeed they are more important, these fans, and you’ve brought with you, or will have with you in Berlin someone who’s something of an expert with fans, or of fans, Lance Fensterman, he’s a former bookseller, but also we know him as the former director of the Book Expo America, and today for ReedPOP he’s the largest producer of pop culture events in the world and organizes, among other events, the New York Comic Con, and he’ll be joining you there in Berlin to tell people more about fans.
Tell us about some of the other speakers you have. I should not go without mentioning our own Michael Healy, who is the executive director of international relations at Copyright Clearance Center. He’ll be speaking on rights and licensing management, meeting the challenge. You’ve got some other very interesting speakers, as well, and speakers who aren’t the usual suspects at a publishers conference.
WISCHENBART: Well, that is a very important thing for us. Avoid having the (inaudible) the voices that we hear at every conference, which are very interesting to listen to, but we think very, very seriously that there are more angles. For instance, I am very, very curious to see what Jacob Dalborg is going to bring us. He’s the CEO of books for Bonnier. Bonnier is the largest Scandinavian book publisher, and at the same time, a real media group. They own radio stations, book chains, TV stations, all kinds of stuff. They are into fan culture and into serious reading. He took over as CEO for the book part just a little bit more than a year ago, and he has never been speaking at any of these conferences.
I can reveal one secret which has not been announced so far. E-books are not just about first world markets like the U.S. or Germany or England. E-books are something where you can bring books to people in places with no access whatsoever to reading. Africa, for instance, southern Asia, poorer societies. Just people who have a cell phone, a smart phone. And we will welcome one of the founders of Worldreader who is distributing e-books in over 50 countries across the planet. So we are really trying to open new angles to a topic that we thought everybody knew almost all about already.
KENNEALLY: Well, indeed, and it’s certainly an ambitious agenda, and one that I’m sure many look forward to seeing it play out there in Berlin on April 27th and 28th at the Publishers’ Forum. For more on Publishers’ Forum, go to their Website publishersforum.de. We’ve been speaking today with the director, the one who is responsible for the program at the Publishers’ Forum, Rüdiger Wischenbart, Rüdiger, thank you so much for joining us on Beyond the Book.
WISCHENBART: Thank you, Chris, for having me.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sough after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series iTunes, or at our Website, beyondthebook.com. Our engineer and coproducer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.