What’s the deal with digital and book fairs?

As you probably already know, I spent the last few days at the Buch Wien, Austria’s biggest book fair. Around 40 000 readers flocked there between last Thursday and Sunday. There were authors presenting their newest books, publishers cementing their reputations with the most successful of their bestsellers. Everywhere you looked there were newspapers, radio and TV stations – it seemed like a conglomeration of all the media there is in Austria.

Meanwhile, there was this undertone of “It may seem like we’re fighting a losing battle but eventually the superiority of the written word, the analogue will triumph.” Depending on whom you talked to, the word eBook still is treated like an unforgivable curse word.

But why? More and more people cancel the subscription, which delivers the newspaper to their doorstep, in favour of using the newspaper’s app. The number of people watching TV programs on online players or Netflix is equally growing. Then why deny this change in consumer behaviour and pretend that it is inherently bad?

I researched the exhibitors before the fair started and there was one fascinating fact I noticed. Most publishers’ websites looked, to be frank, extremely old-fashioned to the point of being incredibly un-user-friendly. The websites were also directed at book distributors and potential authors. There was nothing of interest for readers there.

However, there was one exception. Publishers whose program is aimed at children and young adults had wonderful websites directed at readers, with separated parts for other publishing professionals. There are blogs, quizzes, and recipes to recreate at home. There are all kinds of things to draw the readers further into the book’s franchise and to keep them reading different books the publisher released. It goes without saying that their social media presences are mostly well executed and spread over several different platforms as well.

Perhaps the reason for this resistance towards anything digital is that publishers with older target groups are still successful enough without thinking too much about the digital aspects of their businesses. However, I doubt this strategy can be a long-term one. I fully understand that changes can be intimidating. In the early phase no one knows what they’re doing. It’s a process of trial and error, finding out what works best. While change can be risky and costly, resistance to it often has an even higher price if sales suddenly but surely drop, while the unsurpassable head start competitors have been able to build becomes visible.

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