McCoy talks publishing trends related to e-books

Portrait of James McCoy displayed on an e-reader, which rests near print books on a shelf.

James McCoy, director of the University of Iowa Press, is shown on an e-reader. McCoy recently attended a UNESCO-hosted forum on the future of the written word; much discussion centered around e-books. Photo by Tim Schoon.

In June 2011, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hosted a forum titled “FOCUS 2011 The Book Tomorrow: The Future of the Written Word.” Held in Monza, Italy, the forum was a gathering of 200 participants from around the world, including decision-makers in government and business; digital entrepreneurs, bloggers, and innovators in digital media; representatives of publishers’ associations and of major libraries; media experts and professionals; and journalists and representatives from newspapers.

James McCoy, director of the University of Iowa Press, was there to represent both the University and the city of Iowa City, one of four UNESCO Cities of Literature worldwide. fyi spoke with McCoy about publishing trends with regard to e-books—which aren’t so much the future of the written word, but rather the here and now for publishers.

Among publishers worldwide, what is the view of e-books? Are publishers leading the way?
The e-book market was really developed by retailers like Amazon, and now nontraditional bookselling partners such as Google and Apple have gotten into the game. Publishers are definitely riding the wave. We are adapting to what has been handed down to us by these e-book developers, but here in the United States we are about two or three years ahead of the rest of the publishing world.

Are publishers embracing the idea of e-books?
People at the forum were expressing a lot of anxieties and fear over issues that we have already mounted here in the United States. In the United States, e-books are not even the future—they are NOW. As a publisher, if you’re not getting involved with e-vendors, you’re selling yourself short and you’re going to suffer for it. The European publishing and distribution ecosystem is proving more resistant to change. It will be interesting to see if American publishers find new sales opportunities in Europe due to the slow reaction of the Euro houses.

Read more…
Seven UI experts discuss the overall impact of e-books:

McCoy’s guest editorial on the future of the book and literature:

Are e-books now seen as a permanent, sustainable part of the publishing business?
Most publishers see e-books as a good auxiliary growth area. Early results show that, in most cases, digital books are not cannibalizing print books. Publishing is a tough, tough business right now. Although the industry has embraced e-books and can see the growth potential, this comes at a time when we could be adding administrative and production layers to deal with e-books but we can’t afford to due to the economy.

As an industry, I think that we understand e-books and e-book development processes, but the question is how do we get paid a fair amount? How do we create reasonable market expectations of what e-books are, what they are not, and what consumers should expect to pay for them? It costs a lot to develop quality content, even for “born digital” projects. And frankly, right now many of us aren’t sure what our content is worth.

Does the rapidly changing technology level the playing field for small and large publishers?
Probably not as much as we would hope. There is still an economy of scale to deal with whether it is an electronic or print book. It will be publishers’ responsibility to have a say in what e-books become. Our technical resources are limited. Even the largest publishers can’t compete with Google or Apple on the engineering and development front, but we have to leverage the importance of our content to have a say in how e-books evolve.

What did forum participants have to say about archiving e-books?
Archivists are very much aware that there is not one answer in terms of electronic preservation. People in the industry are trying to develop “future proof” solutions to the variety of issues that e-books represent. For instance when developing electronic files, XML is supposed to provide a reasonable protection in terms of changing formats over time. I think the publishing industry is trying to make books that last, but we’re only in the first generations of e-readers and e-books—there will be many changes. Unlike many objects in our culture, people expect books to have a long lifespan. We have to hope those developing the new technology respect those expectations.