Tuesday, April 21, 2009

CEOs pack the house

A clutch of CEOs (l to r): Penguin's John Makinson, Random House's Gail Rebuck, Hachette UK's Tim Hely Hutchinson and HarperCollins' Victoria Barnsley

Something of a first at the LBF at Earl's Court today. No, not a coffee bar without a queue to aisle W, but the presence of four CEOs and Chairmen on the panel at an industry seminar. The Digital Keynote session entitled 'Where's the money?' was packed, with people standing at the back of the hall, and others sitting on the floor near the stage. Every one knew that the UK heads of Random House, Penguin, Hachette and HarperCollins do not share a platform often and every one wanted to be there.

Moderated by the BBC's Media Correspondent Torin Douglas, it was fascinating to hear industry leaders' views on the D word. Penguin's John Makinson is concerned about protecting IPR and territorial copyright, and said that the Scribd site - "the You Tube of the document world" - needed to be watched carefully. For Random House's Gail Rebuck, digital is about "thinking beyond the book, and looking at added value". Did I mishear her or did she also say: "In the fullness of time we can eliminate print and returns." If she did say that, I don't think she meant it. Surely, she means a reduction in print.

Hachette's Tim Hely Hutchinson is emphatic that piracy must be fought. "Publishers should have zero tolerance of websites with disingenuous raison d'etres." But HarperCollins' Victoria Barnsley added: "We won't win by suing consumers. You have to make them want you. We have to leave the linear model of publishing. Digital is about giving the consumers control."

Are each of them fans of e-readers? Makinson described the Kindle as "very conservative. It seeks to replicate the book and is not designed for young consumers." Rebuck uses a Sony Reader and has found reading on it "almost a more immersive experience than a paper book. The only problem is, once you've finished reading a book, there's nothing to give anyone which is what you would do when you finish a paper book on holiday, for example."

Hely Hutchinson gave around 150 Sony Readers to Hachette UK staff. "Their views are divided around 50-50, with perhaps more in favour. Myself, I haven't taken to it." Barnsley still prefers paper books "because of the design qualitites. But when it comes to e-readers we're still at the black-and-white television stage. I like the flexible screens that companies like Plastic Logic are producing."

Today also saw Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Editor Drenka Willen (below) receive the LBF's Lifetime Achievement Award for International Publishing, sponsored by SBS Worldwide. In an affectionate address Umberto Ecco, one of the many authors she has edited, referred to her as "notre dame des ecrivants". Willen said that she accepted the award "with grace and humility". It was a touching moment and she received lengthy applause from guests who included previous recipient Peter Mayer of Overlook.

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