The Westminster Media Forum is an invitation-only group including politicians, policy makers and people from industry, and is one of 16 run on different industries and sectors. Justine was invited to speak at one of their Keynote Seminars which was attended by people from the DCMS and the DIT amongst others to talk about book publishing and the wider creative market, with particular interest in cross-sector collaboration and copyright.
While Chatham House rules prevent me from naming the participants and sharing every point I can say that some of the topics were aimed at explaining to non-industry members how important the protection of copyright continues to be regardless of our EU membership and what other support the UK book publishing sector needs from government.
Diversity was a hotly discussed issue with criticism coming from those in other media sectors and, to be honest, more of the same discussion as has been heard recently at Futurebook and other events with little conclusive resolutions, although we are expecting to hear more from the Publishers Association shortly on work they have been doing. At the end of the day, publishers will have to walk a fine line between tokenism and just publishing more outside of their comfort zone – of 170,000 new titles published in the UK in 2016 only one was a debut title from a black British male author. Non-traditional events and media forms could well be an effective way of reaching previously under-addressed readers.
On copyright we were given an update from a copyright lawyer about the latest amendments currently on the table for the EU to bring into the existing Copyright Framework, most of which make little difference to the UK’s existing domestic laws which already reach further than those tabled; with the exception of allowing text and data mining for scientific research, which has currently only been allowed for non-commercial research in the UK – this would be a wider reaching amendment assuming that the research was in the public interest. Great transparency for authors and performers to get revenue information from licensees could also make a difference in the UK (and clearly be a positive move) but ultimately the whole exercise is only amending a directive not a law, so domestic legislation would be needed for it to be applied in the UK anyway. If the amendments are accepted at first go by the ministers in the European Parliament (not very likely I think), they would go through in two years but are likely to create a lot more uncertainties. The amendments would require resolution centres to be set up, particularly to deal with content creators’ attempts to get more information from their publishers.
Justine’s panel included some other friends and members of Byte the Book including the redoubtable Sam Missingham from Harper Collins and they discussed competing in the new content economy with a lot of discussion about hybrid authors who publish both with traditional publishers and on their own. Audiences, both knowing them and being able to reach them affordably, was a key topic of the day, with the Booksellers Association showing how high street retailers’ improved offerings to their communities has been one of the main reasons behind the impressive resurgence in the last ten years, possibly also helping the upturn of print books.
All parts of the industry from the Society of Authors through the Publishers’ Association to the Booksellers Association skirted round but alluded to the dominance of one big online retailer and the impact that all the players. A note to government, if they were listening.
There was criticism from a film industry representative who accused publishers of not making the most of successful film adaptations which frankly amazed me, as I can’t imagine why any publisher wouldn’t do everything they could to sell more books on the back of one, nor has it been my experience from inside a big publisher nor looking at the bestseller charts. And some from the gaming industry suggested we should be checking data all the time, A/B testing books in small markets to see if characters should be changed and getting Amazon to share their information on how ebooks were read (because we haven’t thought of that ourselves). Some frustrating comments from those outside, but some valid criticisms too, about how long the traditional publishing chain takes to get books to market and about the lack of risk with new forms of storytelling. I think one of the fundamental lack of understanding from those in other sectors is how much books are not a collaborative product compared to films and video games, but as an industry we could undoubtedly learn more from outside, particularly finding better ways to reach our audiences and creating more for wider audiences that we currently do.