At Lightning Source conference, independent publishers chart a flexible future for the global growth of books

John Ingram talks to one session during the Indie Days publishers’ conference in Nashville.

“I think we’re still at the beginning of what’s possible.”
John Ingram, Chairman of Ingram Content Group


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Books are alive and well—and readership is growing—560 years after Johannes Gutenberg’s moveable type produced a Bible and transformed the world. That alone should be good news to regular readers of our online magazine. Since our founding in 2007, we have published weekly stories about new books and films that help to inspire and connect our world. Last week, our team attended a national publishers’ conference in Nashville, Tennessee.

“In just over half a millennium, printing, publishing and technology driving the industry has changed quite a bit. Innovation is ceaseless and so is the public’s desire for content,” the representatives of 57 publishing houses were told as the 2018 Lightning Source Indie Days conference began this past week.

Background: Lightning Source is the publishing-services division of the giant book wholesaler Ingram. Lightning Source uses cutting-edge equipment to produce millions of just-in-time books each year for all publishers, both large and small. The term “Indie” refers to independent publishers, like our own Front Edge Publishing, as distinct from the Big Five (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan).

Here are three highlights of this year’s conference that are likely to interest our Front Edge readers:


We’ve always known that English circles the world. Each week, we can see that readers from regions including Asia, Europe and Africa are visiting our online magazine. We get a report that shows little flags from all the nations where Internet connections have been made with columns in ReadTheSpirit.

Speakers at this conference stressed that the reach of English continues to grow, comprising about 1.5 billion English speakers around the world today. One expert laid out demographic projections that show, within a couple of decades, India will be the home of more English speakers than the U.S.

A report encouraging publishers to think globally in their marketing of English-language books said: “English is either the official language, or a recognized official language in almost 60 sovereign states. It is the third most common native language in the world, after Mandarin and Spanish. It is the most widely learned second language, an official language of the UN, EU and of many other world and regional international organizations.”

What’s the take-away for our ReadTheSpirit readers? You can travel far with English. Are you hoping to speak to the world through your writing—perhaps through your online columns or emails or newsletters? Yes, as American writers, we should consider adding Spanish options, in particular, but English still circles planet Earth very effectively.

We already are acknowledging these trends in our own publishing house. Want to see an example of a book designed to be helpful to the millions of people around the world who are learning English today? Check out Kathleen Gripman’s American History Made Easy, which is especially popular in regions of Asia where men and women are learning English as a Second Language.

Ingram’s Phil Ollila talks about the future of audio books, among other cutting-edge topics, at the Indie Days publishers’ conference.



Every publisher and media expert we met at the conference talked about the steep challenges of creating audio books. Sales of audio books continue to grow each year (we have more information on that in a Front Edge Publishing column this week)—to the point that another media “disruption” is predicted, similar to the introduction of the Kindle in 2007.

So, what are the big dreams for the future of audio books?

One dream is that audio books eventually will come with a standard set of helpful new tools. For example, in the future, audio books will be as searchable as digital texts. Want to zip right to the section of a book about your favorite character or topic? You’ll be able to do that through an easy audio interface.

One speaker predicted that, within a few years, we will all be able to call out to our Alexa or Google or Siri virtual assistant: “Play me an audio excerpt about the Civil War Battle of Shiloh.” Or: “… about Judy Garland when she appeared in Wizard of Oz.” Or: “… about how to make a German Chocolate Cake.” The speaker went on to predict that, when vast numbers of books are produced in audio and search options are fine tuned, we will be able to ask virtual assistants to play very specific excerpts: “… play the third paragraph of Moby Dick …” or “… play any book that mentions my grandfather Col. George C. Cook in the Korean War …”

“This is going to get so sophisticated that readers will be able to search all the millions of books stored in the cloud for things as specific as: ‘Tell me what happened on Omaha Beach on D-Day at 4 p.m.’,” said Phil Ollila, Chief Content Officer for Ingram. “And you will be able to hear sections of books read to you. Then, it’s going to get even more adaptive. You’ll be able to add, ‘And read that to me with an English accent—or read me that in the voice of a cocktail lounge singer.’ ”

Just envision that world, when an idea might pop up during your morning walk and a quick holler at Siri on your iPhone will suddenly start reading a very specific passage from a book—just the section you want to hear.

For example, imagine the possibilities when you pass a particular monument, or river, or distinctive building. “… play any book about the history of shipping on the Ohio River.”

Does it sound like science fiction? Well, so was the smart phone, or Siri, just a few years ago.


Customer Experience Manager Taylor Hale encouraged publishers to fine tune their messages to customers.

Since our founding in 2007, our publishing house has always offered a flexible option to customize a “short run” of books. That’s a popular option with customers ordering a quantity of books for a conference, special event or a community-wide read. For a long time, that was a fairly exclusive option, based on the special in-house software we use to produce books. That lets us modify books more easily than most publishers.

Now, however, publishers nationwide are clamoring for customization. Several new programs were demonstrated at the conference, two of which are likely to interest general readers.

First, publishers now have new options to personalize individual books by inserting a single, unique page in the front of each book. While placing the order, the publisher can add text and photos to that page. So, for an additional cost, a group ordering books for a class or special event can have each book shipped with a different participant’s name on the first page—or other customized messages. Imagine ordering a copy of our children’s book Sadie Sees Trouble and having it arrive with the first page saying: “This book is a gift from Grandma Cooper to Marcie on her third birthday.” That message might also be accompanied by a photo of Grandma holding Marcie in her lap. Imagine the value of that keepsake!

This kind of customization can be done on all books through publishers who use the Lightning Source system—as we do at our Front Edge Publishing house. Take a look at our catalog and imagine the kinds of personalized gifts and group-reads you could plan.

Second, publishers will be doing more with book-wide customization, mainly starting with children’s books. An entire book—from its cover through its interior pages—can be digitally “mapped” to insert a particular child’s name (or other information) in a whole array of precise locations.

If you love books now—especially children’s books—just imagine how much children will enjoy personalized books in the years ahead.

Care to Read More?

Want to learn more about the latest trends in the publishing industry? Over at our Front Edge Publishing website, we have a column this week with 6 news items from the publishers’ conference of particular interest to writers and media professionals.

Part of the Ingram facility where Indie Days conference sessions were held for representatives from 57 publishing houses. A half dozen large spaces were open to participants throughout the conference—to encourage publishers to form small groups for conversations. Our team from Michigan enjoyed the spontaneous interaction with other publishers as much as the formal presentations.


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  1. Suzy Farbman says

    Interesting column. Thanks for the update. Glad to know you’re on the front lines as well as the Front Edge.