Books unbound: Publishing news from the front line (Part 1: Eastern Europe)

Yale’s Eastern Europe sales representative Ewa Ledóchowicz contemplates ‘books without borders’ and the implications of the eBook for her region – and herself.

Article by Ewa Ledóchowicz

Schengen Monument

Schengen Monument, Luxembourg

The thing that people in my part of the world appreciate most, amongst all the commotion about being members of the European Union, is the ability to travel ID-free around the union. Since 2008, when we joined the Schengen area, a long held dream of freedom came true, a dream, because for Eastern Europeans, freedom from control and enclosure stands for personal liberation. But this freedom has come under severe attack in recent months, led by Western European countries. What has been surprising is the silence of the Eastern European members. Why didn’t they stand up to defend Schengen?

For some, like the Czech Republic or Slovenia, political agendas have come into play. Both these countries’ governments have long opposed a so-called solidarity principle in the case of migration. The silence of some other members, like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, is perhaps of a more practical nature. These and the other eastern EU countries are under pressure because they must provide security for the entire Schengen zone. No one is saying it’s easy to guard thousands of kilometers of Schengen border, and as a result, the European Commission proposed to make it easier for Schengen members to temporarily reintroduce visas for travellers from countries enjoying visa-free travel. I remember reading a striking comment somewhere that membership – be it of the Schengen area, the entire EU, or your local fishing club – is about respecting common rules and values. When the basic rules are violated, the club loses its reason for being. The freedom of travel in Europe is not a given, and it’s looking very vulnerable now.

Big Ben Bookshop, Prague

Big Ben Bookshop, Prague

So what does this mean to our general sense of freedom? Have we been taking it too much for granted? Do we really believe in our freedom and its achievability, or have we imprisoned ourselves with vague abstracts, mere talk about freedom, having already joined the Western dependence on technology, and the lure of on-line freedom and equality? Have we all, both East and West, achieved a mock freedom thanks to technological expansion?

Whilst musing on this I inevitably reach the point of asking myself, who am I and what am I doing? This is not only a philosophical question – practically speaking, I have to ask the big question for my profession, who is a publishing sales representative today, in a globalised world where technology does away with borders? What does he or she do, what are our goals and where are we aiming? We see the marketplace being transformed by rapidly changing patterns of behavior and the application of technology, changing not only the markets themselves but also the nature of many things. In our industry, this phenomenon has a new but familiar name, the eBook.

Behemot Bookshop, Ljubljana

Behemot Bookshop, Ljubljana

I have been asked by almost every bookseller if and how I will sell eBooks to them, the channels of distribution, our pricing policy, and publishers’ opinions on intellectual property protection and piracy. Dean Ivandic, owner of an English language independent bookshop in my territory, Behemot Bookshop in Ljubljana, has one very important bookshelf behind the counter. This single bookshelf is a display area for special orders. It has always been at the heart of customer interest, and now, more than ever, people want to see what others are reading and what is popular to order. However this season the shelf is bringing in a lower turnover, it is still the most browsed shelf in the shop, but this interest is not translating into orders for the shop. Dean describes to me a new ‘rude’ kind of customers, who will brazenly explain that they love to look through books in his Ljubljana shop, only to order later online, for their Kindle. For Dean it’s an alarming new trend, and I have no ready answers to his numerous, sometimes dramatic, questions.

The reality is that the eBook can travel as if there are no borders, it takes up little space and hardly weighs anything. Nowadays one can have a library full of classics, thousands of titles, for mere pennies. You can carry it everywhere, any plane, wherever you are heading. So, the world is changing and so must our industry. For me, there is the question of how the traditional role of sales rep can be built into a new structure. As Margaret Atwood said at the recent ‘Tools of Change’ publishing conference:

“Technology is a tool. The tools are changing. But change is not always good… tools have a sharp side, the upside, a dull side, the downside, and a stupid side, the side you didn’t anticipate and the consequence you didn’t intend. A hammer is a tool. You can use it to build a house, or murder your neighbor. Or you can hit your thumb.”

How might we be hurt by smart devices, by the new face of tomorrow’s book? How might the intellectual content be hurt by a new means of transporting it from one mind to another?

Bestsellers Bookshop, Budapest

Bestsellers Bookshop, Budapest

As the landscape of publishing changes due to technology, the disruption in market distribution and the expectations of a new generation of readers, will we also undergo an internal change in culture, staffing and leadership? When you compare the publishing industry to others, it appears to have moved quite slowly, but does our pace and culture of building great and scholarly works need to change?

These are the questions I am faced with as I go about my work, visiting bookshops and talking to shop owners. What is certain is that the book of the future requires collaboration, so maybe we should start talking about the change now, and ask ourselves the question, are we ready for the moment when there is no physical book to deliver? For sales reps like me, we still keep to our regular schedules, carry catalogues and sample books, show book covers as teasers and enter into other people’s physical spaces. We (try to) educate, inform and engage – we may even entertain! We spend time. Yet all the major booksellers already have websites where you can buy physical products, so the addition of digital goods seems inevitable.

Libraria Engleza Anthony Frost, Bucharest (Romania)

Libraria Engleza Anthony Frost, Bucharest

Look at the book industry now. The fallout of rapid and chaotic change is only beginning. Are we about to find success and take the chance in this new reality – or a failure, and be left behind? Publishing is at crossroads, as people say. It’s not only the content and format which is changing, but also the delivery method. How can publishers keep surviving and do well in the book industry? Portability of content has already became a new issue, and thus should our flexibility. A publisher, just like anyone else, looks to control costs and increase efficiency. But he or she also needs to meet customers’ demands, and customers decide what they want to read, when, where – and how. Those demands create opportunities, and when new demands develop opportunities grow. Are we able to get a share? Let’s hope it is still wide open – and possibly, there is a place for everybody, including us, your knowledgeable devoted representatives.

Ewa in her study in Poland

Ewa in her study in Poland

Ewa Ledóchowicz is the Eastern European sales representative for Yale University Press. Ewa represents a number of other English Language publishers, including University of Chicago Press and Harvard University Press. You can visit her company website at www.ledochowicz.com/en

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