Videl Bar-Kar

With over 10 years at the intersection of media and technology, and currently as Director of a leading group of literary festivals, Videl considers himself both a seasoned technologist with a deep understanding of the digital content space (licensing, store-front management, marketing and complex, high value platform sales to mobile network operators), and also more recently an entrepreneurial festival leader, producer, artistic programmer, and partnership builder (Google, Telegraph, Waterstones, Sky Arts and Arts Council). He has been lucky enough to develop both of these passions over the course of his career and looks forward to a new challenge in the publishing industry that combines this hybrid mix of skills and experience.

Videl B ar-Kar_profile pic

1. Why did you decide to join “Ways with Words” and what have been your highlights?

Having concentrated on the digital side of media and content for a good ten years or so, I really felt the desire to turn towards live events and while my degree was in German literature, I had moved far away from books and the written word. Joining Ways With Words festivals of words and ideas was a unique opportunity for me to move into those worlds while also giving me the chance to harness and develop my commercial skills in terms of fundraising, marketing and management of a small and focused team that annually produces over 300 author events that attract an audience of around 40,000 across the UK.

One of the biggest perks of the job is undoubtedly being involved in programming and introducing incredible authors to intelligent, independently minded audiences. Last year’s highlights included Jang Jin Seong, the former court poet for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who appeared as part of the national Poetry Parnassus programme. I was also thrilled when we managed to beam Channel 4 international editor Lindsey Hilsum live from her hotel room in Tripoli to our audience in Devon via Apple FaceTime to talk about the previous day’s post-Gaddafi free elections and her book Sandstorm. There was a real sense of uniqueness and excitement to that event.

The other huge highlight for me was devising, funding, programming and launching a new not for profit children’s books and arts festival in south London called Word Up!, which received support from the Arts Council as well as Google and launched after a really strong media campaign. Even Blue Peter came to do some filming! We managed to get around 5,000 children and families to experience 40 events over 3 days, which felt like a fantastic result. I will never forget the sight of children sprinting to the front of the book-signing queue to meet their favourite authors.

2. A lot of parallels have been drawn between the music industry and the current flux in the publishing industry. Do you feel this rings true?

There is no doubt that technology’s effect on music and books away from their historical position of scarcity towards ubiquity has permanently disrupted both industries on a massive scale. On a macro level there are some pretty fundamental questions that we still don’t really know the answer too, in particular whether this move towards ‘everything always on, always available’ is compatible with generating sustainable income for authors and musicians, as well as their publishes and record companies.

In terms of similarities, certainly over the last 10 years both industries have experienced a decline in bricks and mortar retail (as I write this HMV has just gone into administration), a huge rise in physical online sales and most recently a big shift from physical to digital products (according to PwC, the proportion of global digital revenues for music was around 32% in 2011 while books was only 4%, so there is probably a lot more growth for digital books still to come). What happened with music and what is happening with publishing now is a wave of innovation coming from technology companies big and small, which is helping to build a new roadmap of products and services that consumers hopefully want and will pay for (unavoidably this comes with a fair share of wrong turns and dead ends along the way, some potentially disruptive).  Another commonality is that a very small number of digital retailers have become dominant on a global level, Apple and Amazon in particular.

On the other hand it’s really important to understand some of the key differences between the industries and also how music and books are experienced and consumed. A large part of the music industry’s revenues comes from live performances and tours (around $4.6bn in the US in 2009 according to IFPI – and there is a very smart London based start up called Songkick who are making it easier to go to more live shows), while book festivals, poetry slams and other literary events, no matter how important for the spreading of ideas, creativity and free speech, will never come close to generating those kind revenues. It’s important to remember that until the advent of the gramophone, music had always been a live art form and was intrinsically a social experience. Books on the whole are read privately and I think one of the challenges is how to make the book reading experience more social in terms of readers being able to share their views and create a sense of community. This is certainly starting to happen with Wattpad and Goodreads amongst others but it’s just the beginning. We all know that a personal recommendation is more powerful than one from an algorithm.

When music is bought, it is typically listened to many times while books tend to be read once. Might this be a good argument for an eBook subscription or lending service? From a consumer’s point of view, I think probably yes for a certain type of reader. Its going to be the publishers’ job to help third party retailers find the sweet spot in the market where a certain segment of book buyer will happily pay for an all you can eat subscription of eBooks or lending service. If the sweet spot can be found, it shouldn’t necessarily cannibalize single purchase revenues and publishers should start licensing for subscription services sooner rather than later in order to start learning what really works. Music subscription service Spotify now has about 5m subscribers who each spend about £100 a year on accessing music. That’s a pretty good result in terms of serving a particular segment of music consumers.

The unbundling of music is also an interesting phenomenon in terms of how technology has changed the form that musicians create their music in, as well as how it is consumed. Recorded music started as singles (78s), moved to albums in the 1950s (LPs) which continued with cassettes and CDs, and since digital downloads and iTunes has moved back to singles to a large degree. There is now a great deal of non-fiction unbundling, particularly if you look at how we can build our own self-curated online magazines using platforms such as Flipboard to aggregate content from newspapers, blogs and twitter feeds. In fact, I wonder if certain types of non-fiction, current affairs type books might morph into containing some kind of serialized element as a way of keeping all the facts and information bang up to date. The resurgence of serialised fiction (which feels like unbundling) is also very exciting and will surely grow but not to the extent that singles have come back to dominate music. I’m pretty confident that a good long form novel is too powerful and immersive an experience to disappear. If I were negative however, I might argue that the next generation of readers will find it so hard to concentrate on and commit to an 80,000 word narrative, that serialised books might become much more dominant. Time will tell.

I’m running out of space and haven’t even talked about piracy and DRM.

3. If you could travel five years back in time what advice would you give yourself?

The professional advice I still give myself now, and what I would have given myself five years ago, is not to be afraid of mistakes or not immediately knowing the answer to problems. I have been lucky enough to work with some brilliant and brave entrepreneurs who have been able to figure out creative ways out of problems through very open, collaborative thinking. Having recently taken my own risks in funding and building two new literary festivals, I know there is not always a perfect answer to everything. Rarely does a single individual have the answers. It’s about collective problem solving and sometimes its actually just about vision and drive. There would be no entrepreneurs if they worried about all the obstacles that faced them at the start of a new venture.

4. Who do you admire and why?

I admire publishing and technology entrepreneurs like Chris Book of Bardowl and James Huggins of Me Books, while at the other end of the spectrum I take my hat off to Google for their sheer ambition and determination to digitize the entire written word.

I also admire self-editing, non-profit organisations like Wikipedia who have contributed so much to the ubiquitous availability of knowledge throughout the world. The optimist in me finds it incredible that Wikipedia is the 5th most visited website in the world. We are obviously moving in the right direction.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many wonderful writers at our festivals but these days I can’t get enough of Craig Brown’s razor sharp, satirical wit, especially One on One and The Lost Diaries. He’s also a real gentleman in person.

5. What predictions do you have for 2013 for publishing?

In essence, 2013 is going to be an exciting if daunting year depending on who you are. There will be more consolidation amongst publishers (there are now 3 record companies that control around 70% of the global music market) and as far as retail is concerned, as much as I hope Waterstones will have a good year, it will be hard. Although I am convinced that physical bookshops still have a role to play, the underlying economic conditions in the UK are tough. I have just heard that we spent £5bn less this Christmas compared to last year.

On the upside there has never been so much choice for readers, so many different new online communities for discovering new books (discovery is one of the most important issues in our ‘long tail’ world), different types of devices for reading, or so many alternative funding models for self-published authors and for small, smart presses who can offer a distinct identity to authors and readers. For me, Faber as an independent publishing brand does this incredibly well.

Like others in the industry, I agree that publishers big and small should seize the opportunity to launch new D2C strategies in order to build up what Seth Godin rightly calls permission directly from readers. Record labels gave most of their customers’ data to Amazon and Apple and publishers should learn from the music industry’s missed opportunity.

Subscription and lending services (both for eBooks and audiobooks) will grow and some may find a route to market through being bundled into the price of our monthly mobile phone bills (Berlin based Textr is using this strategy). Publishers will use software like iBooks Author to create multimedia versions of books that don’t require the huge investment of a fully blown native app and finally, digital marketing will get seriously data driven with companies such as Bookseer leading the way.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Google will start to make more of an impact with its Play store for books, we’ll see more established authors like Margaret Atwood taking a hybrid approach to publishing their work, and more authors will be scouted via self-publishing platforms and will have already existing fan bases in place.

Certainly not a static industry in 2013 then.

A huge thank you to Videl for his insight, time and predictions for 2013. Videl is a hive of information, a champion for the power of the written word and is an extremely friendly chap to boot. You can find him on Twitter at @videlbarkar

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