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Berlin’s ‘Senior’ Publishers’ Forum Convenes In A Digitally Youthful Industry

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Stock photo © Sean Pavone
Stock photo © Sean Pavone

‘The Most Senior In Continental Europe’

There are, it turns out, myriad ways to structure and calibrate the discussions and debates and conversations that go into a good publishing conference.

Rüdiger Wischenbart
Rüdiger Wischenbart

This year, one of the most interesting contextualizations awaits us in Berlin. There, international publishing specialist and consultant Rüdiger Wischenbart is at the helm of Publishers’ Forum, following a decade of able direction from  Helmut von Berg.

The Forum sits on Monday and Tuesday and is an annual presentation of the powerful German publishing software corporation Klopotek. Our live coverage will be found on Twitter at hashtag #pf15.

Always a distinctive combination of warm welcome and refreshing rigor, this conference is singularly positioned now — thanks to von Berg’s careful stewardship and Wischenbart’s standing in the world community — to begin opening a bit more widely to the international realm that has so much to learn from the experiences of the German market.

Germany is the leading publishing nexus in Continental Europe. Indeed, despite tremendous strides in China and India — both impacting the global business with fast-rising vitality — Germany has led the way for many years along with the States and the United Kingdom. Not for nothing is the largest publishing trade show in the world the venerable Frankfurt Book Fair (October 14-18). Its own proud legacy has been to help prepare the German publishing industry for the exigencies of the digital dynamic.

And yet, as in every other major publishing hub, digital does not walk softly or slowly. Quick, sometimes profoundly unsettling changes have become as familiar to our German colleagues as they are to associates in our own markets. The shock of the new is an equal-opportunity agitation. To point to only two centers of interest, Germany’s emerging self-publishing community is among the most robust in the world, and the German-born Tolino e-reading devices and ecosystem have, by some reports begun to rival Amazon’s Kindle presence, as Tolino crosses borders into other European markets.

I’ve been given the green light by US-based publishing veteran and consultant Brian O’Leary to jump ahead to what will be happening next week as Publishers’ Forum concludes

Brian O'Leary
Brian O’Leary

O’Leary will chair a conference-closing discussion titled “Outlook: Perspectives On The Road Ahead.” Working with panelists Zoe Beck of Culturebooks, Benjamin Wüstenhagen of K-Lab, and Jörg Rheinboldt of Axel Springer Plug and Play, “We’ll explore what works, and what doesn’t work,” O’Leary tells me, “for those laboring at the leading edges of our industry.” He goes on:

 Our closing panel considers the conference themes — strategy and goals, IT’s role, customer focus and new business models — from the standpoints of a publishing startup, an independent author and a publishing innovation lab. To frame the discussion, I will offer a brief overview that links the content of the 2015 conference to a persistent call for a shift in our approach to creating, managing and distributing content. That overview will inform and help us moderate a discussion among the panelists, who will share their thinking about those things they feel publishers can work on to improve their competitive position in the time to come.

If you’re getting a sense of  déjà-vu, it might be because this is what we heard just yesterday (April 21) from the author and Silicon Valley Lean Startup creator Eric Ries. In our interview with him at London’s The FutureBook, Ries talks with great candor about how deeply and thoroughly any corporate entity, not just one in publishing, has to reconsider and reconfigure systems and philosophy in order to take advantage of the entrepreneurial energy that’s fueling so much of the digital disruption.

As Ries tells us there:

It’s not something an individual person taking their own initiative can do. You can’t just disobey the corporate profits and hope for the best. It takes a new process and a new system that supports this way of working. And companies I’ve seen embrace it have had very dramatic results with it.

O’Leary will be looking for ways forward by asking his panelists such questions as:

  • From your perspective, what are the best opportunities for publishers to pursue in the next few years?
  • What obstacles, including but not limited to culture, skill sets and core competencies, stand in the way of publishers realizing the potential of those opportunities?
  • If you could change one thing to make your work with publishers easier or more effective, what would that be?
  • Are there things that publishers typically misunderstand about your work? How do you work with them to create a better understanding?

And the road to those questions will have been paved — as O’Leary suggests — by a quartet of themes devised by Wischenbart to drive the entire conference’s inquiries.

At last year's Publishers' Forum in Berlin, US author Hugh Howey was one of the speakers. Image courtesy of Klopotek.
At last year’s Publishers’ Forum in Berlin, US author Hugh Howey — third visible from left — was one of the speakers. Image courtesy of Klopotek.

‘Reconstructing Publishing’

The four themes (and brief descriptions) of this year’s Publishers’ Forum are:

  • Strategy And Money: “How strategy and investment choices are intertwined”
  • IT Goes Center Stage: “How decisions on IT and digital processes directly influence many strategic plans (in every size publishing house)”
  • Know Your Customer And Don’t Be Afraid: “How a good fact-driven understanding of the customer is critical to bringing the right books and content to readers”
  • Publishing Goes Pop: “How publishing needs to reach out well beyond the book and, in doing so, encounter new — and often completely different — audiences”

As the moderator for a Publishing Goes Pop panel, myself — “Fostering Fandom, Not Just Readers – How Passion and Community Can Drive Sales” — I have a terrific contingent of specialists: Lance Fensterman of ReedPOP; Michael Bhaskar of Canelo; Nathan Hull of Mofibo; and Andreas Gall of Red Bull Media House.

We’re going to be looking for the ways that publishing can think of the wider entertainment world’s use of fandom for the needs of the bookish culture’s needs. Obviously, if there are things to be learned from developers of the kind of severe loyalty and actionable commitment we see in “fan events,” then publishing can only benefit from understanding and interpreting them to its own benefit.

All of this is a reflection, Wischenbart has told Copyright Clearance Center’s Chris Kenneally in a Beyond The Book podcast interview, of the task that the industry now faces in “reconstructing publishing,” not at all a bad term for it.

And Germany’s position as the fastest moving market in the wake in the digital tide is the perfect place to see what’s happening.

In the interview (and here is the transcript), Wischenbart explains the “senior” status of Publishers’ Forum, the positioning that places it squarely at the center of the changes being logged here;

I guess Publishers’ Forum is 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 is the focal point, and we’ll discuss how is that transformation going on in Germany and in similar ways in other European markets, like the Netherlands or France or Italy — it’s a quite outstanding opportunity.

We’re quite excited to have that conference, which…reaches out way beyond the pure German or Germanic parameters.

No wonder, then, that speakers are traveling to Berlin from so far afield of those “German parameters.”

Entrepreneurial expert Richard Nash (who will join us next month at IDPF’s Digital Book 2015 in New York; Publishing Perspectives editor Edward Nawotka, Copyright Clearance Center’s Michael Healy, Klopotek’s own David HetheringtonMatt Turner of MarkLogic, all from the States, will be joining the UK’s David Worlock of Outsell; Steve Odart of Ixxus; Worldreader’s Colin McElwee; Impresario Media LLP at Yale University Press’ Fionnuala Duggan; Thames & Hudson’s Dr. Rolf Grisebach; and the International Publishers Association’s Simon Littlewood;  Italy’s Marcello Vena of All Brain and Jacob Dalborg of Sweden’s Bonnnier Books; and a who’s who of leading German figures in the business, among them Klopotek’s Klaus-Peter Stegen; Books on Demand’s Dr. Florian Geuppert; Open Publishing’s Christian Damke; Carlsen’s Mareike Hermes; Haufe Gruppe’s Birte HackenjosDr. Harald Henzler of smart digits; Holtzbrinck’s Volker Smid; Tolino’s Christian Schniedermann; author Kathrin Passig, Bookwire’s Jens Klingelhofer; Christa Beiling of Unternehmensberaterin; and many more — all told, more than 60.

Publishers’ Forum mounts both an English-language track of sessions and a German-language track, as well as key plenary sessions — here is the full agenda in PDF — so that the delegates come together in a set of interlocking conversations. Wischenbart and Klopotek are banking on the synergy culminating in a strongly unified discussion in a wide diversity of interests.

In his interview, Wischenbart tells Kenneally:

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 we 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. TC mark

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