INTERVIEW: Blurb CEO on the future of books

Eileen Gittins, the CEO of bespoke book-publishing firm Blurb, talks e-books, new publishing models and the iPad.  

>What will the book industry look like in 10 years?

It will be a lot smaller. There are two varieties of books: books you want to keep and books you want to consume. For consuming, people will go digital. Within five years, 50% of books will be digital. Then there are other books that you want to keep. They are objects of beauty. They might be reference pieces like a cookbook, or gifts, and you can't give digital. Because of the economy, there will be fewer books in bookstores and fewer bookstores themselves. They won't go away, but they will become more social places. They'll become more like a coffee house, a social place where you meet up with other people for book signings and events.

>How are you doing well when traditional publishing is struggling?

Traditional publishers are suffering from a legacy business model. This is often the case when there is a big disruption in the industry. We are a very direct model where there aren't any of those people on the food chain. We are an internet company. We didn't have all those legacy relationships. We don't pay agents, we don't pay advances and we don't take the risk like big publishers.

The point of this company is not that we're selling 20 books, each of which sell 30,000 copies, but we're doing 30,000 books each of which sells 20 copies. Penguin or Knopf or HarperCollins can't put in a lot of money these days. What they have to do now is put some marketing behind a well-known author that has a big audience. It's really becoming a blockbuster business. The big publishers can't afford to take on the rest of us that may be delighted to sell 20 copies or 2,000 copies. They just don't have the finances to do it. So Blurb becomes a really great outlet for those people who are trying to either break in to build an audience or are publishing because of personal passion and if they sell 50 copies they are thrilled.

>How does your business work?

Our market is split into three segments. First, personal book makers: people making family books, holiday books, etc, with no intention of selling them for profit. That's about 40% of our business. Then 30% of our books are promotional marketing tools. Lexus does books with us, Ducati, Honda, Google and Microsoft. Each run will be a few hundred copies. Recently we've seen a spate of company books celebrating some kind of product launch or event. They're not for sale.

The final 30% are absolutely for-profit books. One of the beauties of our online bookstore is that because we make our money on the printing side, you can retain 100% of whatever mark-up you've put on the book over and above your cost.

>Are the big publishers right to keep e-book prices high?

Information wants to be free on the internet so this arbitrary notion that ‘I'm not going to make that same content available from the start in digital form as hardback' is ridiculous and consumers will not stand for that. Publishers need to figure out how to right-size their organisations to fit today's model and how to jettison the things that aren't working. They need to learn to be more efficient in terms of physical distribution and how to do a better job at spotting the big talent that they can put big money behind.

>How are you approaching e-publishing?

We are making investments in e-publishing and outputting to the various e-readers: Nook, Kindle, etc, as well as HTML5 for the iPad. We have one of every e-reader at Blurb and we've hacked books on to everything. This will move forward for two reasons. Firstly, our platform supports it. Secondly, all we do is business online. We have such an investment in communities, online marketing, this is what we know, this is what we do, this is where we live.

Very soon you will see output to e-book standards so that you can make your book available on Google or wherever and will be able to read your book on an e-reader as well as an iPad. The reason why this isn't already available from Blurb is up until pretty recently it was all e-readers. Now it's on the iPad as well, it is 10% of our business. Now that colour is in the world it makes things way more interesting. In addition to printing copies of their book, many of our authors have iPad versions.

I think the iPad has changed people's relationship to technology in a very intimate way. Your access to technology is not about producing, it is now about consuming media. Before, if your laptop or mobile phone was your consumption device, you had limitations. But on the iPad, if you want to consume video games, a book, or look at television, it's brilliant. I think it's going to change the distribution of print media and it's going to change people's fundamental relationship to technology.

>How does the rest of the publishing industry see your business?

Two years ago, they'd probably wish we'd go away. That's not true now. We're being approached now, with publishers for partnerships because there are some book titles that are not economical for them, but they would still like to maintain the relationship with the author. People who go into publishing have a great love for books and it pains them when they're just not set up to get something out. It may be skewed, but those are the ones we are seeing.

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INTERVIEW: Blurb CEO on the future of books
Read More12 Jul 10 StrategyEye