During reunion weekend, Barnard gathered a group of distinguished alumnae from the publishing field to discuss new approaches to this competition. Willa Perlman ’81, managing partner and founder of Ligature Partners, an executive search firm that specializes in the publishing and education fields, moderated the discussion. Panelists included Phyllis Eitingon Grann ’58, senior editor at Doubleday (random house), Amy Hertz ’85, books editor at the huffington Post and tangerine ink., Julia Cheiffetz ’00, senior editor at harperstudio, and Carolyn sawyer o’Keefe ’97, publicity manager at Little, Brown and Company.
Perlman opened the session with the headline question: “Does paper hold [its ground] or are e-readers the way forward?” All panelists agreed that the digital age has greatly impacted publishing. People are reading more than ever, although printed books will become a premium commodity, and publishers will see electronic books become a bigger part of business.
Grann acknowledged, “electronic delivery is the way of the future. Publishers who understand business have to be careful with the delivery of paper books, which will be reduced in half. the transition will be hard to get over. Publishing will follow what happened in the music business.” O’Keefe commented: “We need to maintain profitability and think about a new business model,” noting that publishers have traditionally relied on the prices of hardcover books to make their profits.
There are extra costs associated with digital content, and companies need to ensure electronic books are not pirated. “When everything is digital, everything is stealable,” remarked Grann. “The younger generation doesn’t look at it as theft.”
Hertz added that the Huffington Post decided against a subscription model for its content, relying instead on advertising. She explained, “Young people are not used to paying for things.” Publishing companies are also rethinking the traditional model in terms of huge art and editorial departments that only work on several projects per year. How does this change the role of publishers as they have less control over the content and process? The internet in general is offering more opportunities for writers to self-publish. The day may come when bestselling authors forgo a publisher to find their own markets. There are some authors who decide to first publish electronically with a site like Amazon. The digital book comes out first because distributors, not publishers, are more concerned with number of units sold than price. But, Cheiffetz noted that with the proliferation of online resources there is an even greater need for curators of content: “We need editors to nurture talent.”
If what’s inside a book still matters, what of its outside? Although e-books will still come with a book cover, these covers will have less impact and be less of a sales issue. Publishers who now pay for their paper printed book to be positioned at the front of stores will have their virtual products prominently displayed on the top of an iPad or on the homepage of booksellers’ web sites.
After the discussion, several alumnae posed questions about what might be lost in the transition to e-books. Independent bookstores have already suffered. Known for their customer loyalty and for drawing attention to new authors, their future is “short,” according to O’Keefe, “and those that survive must have a strong online presence.” One participant observed the shift in our sense of browsing, in the bookstore, the library, even in the book itself. Said hertz, “electronic books are changing the way our brains work.” Cheiffetz added, “our chance for discovery and serendipity takes another shape.” In the end, Cheiffetz assuaged the audience’s fears that technology will trump content: “it’s still all about books and all about good storytelling. I’m concerned with the coffee, not the cup.”
-by Stephanie Shestakow, illustration by Valero Doval