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The next big business for news publishers? Some say books

Why some publishers see the books business as the next frontier for diversification

When someone talks about “the next big business” you might think VR, AR or AI. Or some tech-related innovation that will disrupt your whole industry. But that “sexy new thing” might just be an old thing, overlooked in the digital age. For news publishers it looks like it could very well be books.

According to IBISWorld, a research firm, the global newspaper publishing industry was worth around $80 billion in 2020 (excluding online-only publications). But the trends are the same all around the world – the newspaper business has been in decline for years and there is nothing on the horizon that might change this.

On the other hand, technology company ReportLinker estimates the global book publishing market at around $110 billion in 2020. It is projected to grow by a modest but consistent 0.3% annually to reach $112.2 billion in 2027.

That might not be the meteoric rise you are looking for. But if an industry is growing slowly and your business is in decline, you might think about making some moves.

Of course, your first thought will be that no matter what you do, Amazon will one day come and simply take over the book business. That’s a reasonable assumption (that’s where they started).

However, as Tomas Bella, head of digital for Slovak media Dennik N, told me, media houses have one thing that no one else has: non-fiction authors right on the payroll.

More from The Fix: How much should journalists know about the news business?

Book publishing by news media in central Europe

There is more than one way for a news publishing house to approach an adjacent book business. The small central European market is a good example showing how different strategies towards book publishing can coexist.

Bella said books and their e-shop accounted for about 5% of total yearly revenues of 5.3 million euros in 2020. In addition to books it also sells their cartoonist’s popular graphics.

In the fourth quarter it even reached 11%, partially because books are a seasonal product. But Bella also added that Dennik N has started publishing translations of foreign titles since mid-2020, so their production increased.

If you are looking to diversify even 5% is a good start. Dennik N did not start publishing books in 2020, they have published some here and there for several years. But last year marked a noticeable uptick.

“It started as an effort to give our own journalists a chance to change the rhythm of their work and focus on one project for a longer period. We didn’t have a business plan,” Bella told me. He added that, to their surprise, even explicitly ‘public interest’ titles, e.g. about educating the Roma or critical thinking, turned out profitable. 

He also noted they were lucky in selecting international titles for translation. After six months this division is already profitable.

“Readers seem to appreciate our selection of the best of international books for them, just as we do with news covering the most important news and events,” Bella added.

This isn’t as easy as it seems. You might think only already successful titles are translated. But it takes 6 to 12 months to translate and produce a book, so often licenses have to be bought before the original titles are released.

A look at Dennik N’s online book store

Classical titles can be a solid foundation

Another Slovak news publisher, Petit Press, has been in the book business for years, publishing three to four books annually. 

Most were written by Dennik SME journalists (part of Petit Press). Sometimes it was original content, but typically the books gathered previously published articles.

In 2004, Petit Press started a project called Zlaty Fond (roughly “Golden Oldies” in English). The idea was to digitize publications with expired copyrights (meaning they could be published free of charge).

The website was launched as a public service, to popularize classical Slovak literature that is part of school reading curricula, the current Zlaty Fond project manager Jana Donovalova explained.

They use OCR technology to scan the books. Editors check the text for mistakes. Donovalova said dozens of volunteers help the one full-time employee responsible for digitization.

Petit Press is adding around 50 new titles to their online library each year. Some are processed as e-pubs for commercial distribution by booksellers or via eKnihy (“eBooks”).

“The eKnihy website is a digital library for premium subscribers who can download e-books to their devices. In addition to classic Slovak works, it contains e-books from special editions of the publishing house. You can read literary works on Zlaty Fond, but they cannot be downloaded as an e-pub or mobi,” Donovalova explained.

Donovalova said there are some efforts to turn some literary pieces into audiobooks. (Bella said it is costly to produce and not in Dennik N’s plans).  

Last year, Dennik SME started a children’s podcast with famous Slovak actor Robert Roth reading classical bedtime stories. It is also available on the portal eKnihy. Donovalova hopes to turn more stories into audio in the future.

The Zlaty Fond website, featuring a popular poem by Slovak author Samo Chalupka.
Books are a growing business for news publishers (example of Petit Press portal eKnihy)
The eKnihy website, featuring original books by Petit Press

Another strategy: Go for multiple language book licenses

The Slovak publishing house Barecz & Conrad Media publishes Forbes Slovakia, Forbes Czech Republic and Forbes Hungary.

In 2019, the publisher started a new division called “barecz & conrad books” and published its first two books. In 2020 they produced six titles, including a mental health diary.

“We look at the book division as another branch of the publishing house,” Peter Barecz, the publisher and CEO told me. Titles should have to have a clear symbiosis with the thematic scope of the Forbes audience, he added. “At the same time, we effectively support books within Forbes marketing channels and offer them secondarily as a combo product with a subscription.”

But that’s not the main purpose of the book division, Barecz explained when asked about future plans. Rather, the goal is to publish more books and make the business more standalone.

“So far, we focus explicitly on non-fiction. By publishing Forbes also in the Czech Republic and Hungary, it is interesting for us, in the case of some books, to scout licenses for one and the same title for these markets together,” noted Barecz. “Across three countries, we have published several titles in the last year.”

This year barecz & conrad books have published one book so far, a translation of David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. Last year, they licensed No Rules Rules, a title by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD, a leading international business school.

Books are a growing business for news publishers (example of Forbes Slovakia)
Forbes Slovakia online book store. Forbes Czech Republic and Forbes Hungary have similar e-shops.

“Ask journalists if they happen to have a book in their head. Because they often have. If you have a good author with a topic in their head, publishing can be outsourced or learned,” Bella advised.

Book publishing worldwide is on the rise

Sure, it is a long process for news publishers to turn books into a real business.

But with the right approach you can jump in and grow slowly, learn and get better. Also, the idea is not to turn your news business into a book business. 

Although there are cases like that of Danish publisher Politiken, which built quite a large book business. 

In 2016 JP / Politikens Forlag (part of JP/Politikens Hus, which is one of Denmark’s leading media companies) established in Sweden a modern quality book publishing house named Polaris Förlag. It focused on literary fiction, crime and thrillers, and popular nonfiction. 

In 2017, Polaris already had a bestseller debut on hand with 10 international deals for Elisabeth Norebäck’s psychological thriller In My Blood.

In December 2020, The New York Times summed up the state of book business after the first year of pandemic with these words: In 2020, business was good.

[Editor’s note: The author works at Petit Press but has no ties to the book publishing division.]

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

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