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Hacking the Future of the Book Industry

Hacking the Future of the Book IndustryLast week, we attended the latest event from the Media Futures team, entitled Publish! A Day of Innovation on the Future of the Book. It lasted a full day and featured a number of presentations and debates about potential routes forward for the beleaguered British book industry.

The UK book trade can be somewhat archaic and retrogressive place to be at times (see Waterstones MD James Daunt’s recent outburst for a flavour) so attempts to practically rethink book publishing for the Internet age are both rare and very welcome in this country.

In total, there were over twenty guests at Publish!, many of whom were engaged in progressive projects across the publishing spectrum. Unsurprisingly, the majority of presenters were from startups and smaller publishing companies, although some were partnering with much larger book publishers, and for many the terms ‘publishing’ or ‘book’ were becoming increasingly elastic.

Most of the speakers were already looking beyond the novelty of the ebook and towards the digital reading markets that are emerging as a result of social and technological shifts. Amongst the new frontiers that were discussed were social media, new mobile platforms, interactive narrative ‘experiences’ informed by video games, and new reading services and business models that are taking advantage of readers’ changing habits.

There seemed to be a twofold acknowledgement amongst the speakers.

Firstly, it was recognised that today ‘books’ are competing for attention in a flattened entertainment market, in which competition arises from literally any digital media available via the Internet, not just other book titles or genre rivals.

Secondly, it was recognised that to thrive in this flattened market, in which competition is multiplied and therefore ferocious, book publishers must think less about the specific format and dogmas of the ‘book’ as an object of tradition, and think more about the intrinsic qualities that separate book reading from other leisure pursuits.

In other words, book publishers might profitably reinvent their trade if they focus on the creation of greater value in the reading experience. How so? Well, they will have to invent new ways of enhancing the qualities that immerse readers in long-form reading, and distinguish themselves from other entertainment pursuits by making digital books ‘more special’ and thus unique from a video game or a motion picture.

In an attempt to capture some of the unfolding conversation, I’ve compiled a Storify article, which can be read at the foot of this blog; it’s a little long, but hopefully covers quite a bit of ground.

As well as Anna Lewis discussing her new venture Valobox, and Alastair Horne of Cambridge University Press discussing his research on innovation in the publishing industry (you can download his report here), two presentations at Publish! particularly interested me.

1. High-end digital book publishing: Talk by Meg Geldens, Chief Financial Officer of Touch Press.

Touch Press have been involved in several recent pioneering ventures in mobile book publishing.

Anyone who has an iPad, or is thinking about buying one, has probably seen their app Solar System, possibly manipulated the face of the Sun with a finger touch, and may have wondered after the company that produced it.

Touch Press is a new kind of book publishing company with a number of major tech and interactive publishing names on board. They include Stephen Wolfram, the man behind ‘knowledge engine’ Wolfram Alpha and the Mathematica software, his longtime collaborator Theodore Gray, and former BBC documentarian turned entrepreneur/scientist Max Whitby.

Along with Wolfram’s other companies, Touch Press partners include Faber and Faber, Black Dog & Leventhal, and the University of Chicago Press (although it is a British company). Working together, their stated aim is to produce ‘new kinds of book’, to be released across various mobile computing platforms.

The founding partners of Touch Press primarily come from scientific and computing backgrounds, and so they reach out to creative content producers and seek to collaborate wherever possible, partnering with publishers, research companies and design agencies to round off the production of each of book project.

According to Geldens, collaborations such as these are a core aspect of the Touch Press business strategy. By producing their apps they hope to: (i) generate short and long-term revenue, (ii) win profile and awards, and finally (iii) attract interesting partners who can add value to their creative output.

The third ambition is perhaps what separates Touch Press from traditional publishers: active collaborations with external partners who bring value to their ‘books’ as multimedia experiences, and a willingness to share the creative or conceptual load wherever possible. It’s a highly specialised approach to digital book publishing that follows the logic of many Internet-era companies – outsource anything you’re not great at, minimise the cost of non-specialisms through partnership.

Yet the budgets for Touch Press productions are large by book industry standards. Geldens told the audience that the smallest budget they produced an app for was £30-50k, but that typically £100-150k was the norm. Needless to say, this is high risk strategy when operating in a young marketplace (app stores) that can be unpredictable, and which is notoriously dominated by video games apps like Angry Birds.

The relatively high level of investment has paid off though. The impressive production values and interactivity of Touch Press apps has prompted Apple to heavily promote the output of Touch Press, as their apps expansively demonstrate the capacities of an iPad as a reading or learning device. In turn, Apple’s endorsement and promotion has significantly boosted the commercial performance of Touch Press apps. Solar System, for example cost approximately £100,000 to produce, but has taken £700,000 in revenues over the past year. Not a bad early effort!

Having such large ‘book’ budgets has a downside, however. Geldens said economic considerations take priority in her company’s commissioning process, and that the ‘books’ they commission have to appeal equally to American, Japanese and British markets. This sounds like a recipe for blandness, admittedly, but the upcoming app Skulls, which brings the world’s largest collection of human and animal skulls to interactive life, is anything but. It is easy to see larger publishers with less flair taking a conservative, dull approach to book apps, however, and amongst the large British book publishers there is already a clear preference for established franchises and celebrity titles. Touch Press, by contrast, produce wholly original works.

It’s also possible to see similar interactive ‘book’ projects being developed that are not books at all. Perhaps in the future Touch Press may partner with large museums on app publishing projects? Or movie studios? There are obvious synergies.

Gelden’s presentation on the economic realities of their business made a compelling case for the emergence of digital-only luxury ‘book publishers’, for whom print is a secondary medium for the commissioning of creative work. Touch Press apps are beautifully produced, and no less charming than the very finest graphic reference books.

So who are the audience of these interactive ‘books’? While it would be interesting to read audience data on the people who buy Solar System and comparable book apps, unfortunately it’s difficult as Apple restricts publishers’ access to this information. However, it seems apparent that book apps appeal to a much wider audience than traditional graphic illustration books – or the ‘non-book buying market’ if we can characterise them as such.

Presumably this would be similar with a literary work like The Waste Land, another lavish Touch Press production: The Waste Land app, which is rich with audio and video content relating to T.S. Eliot and his seminal poem, will surely appeal to many whose first priority will be to show off their literary taste to others. It’s the sort of production that will appeal to the obsessive-compulsive book fiend as much as it will the disengaged intellectual pseud, looking to impress an avocation for popular literature on a friend or partner, and in this sense is interestingly poised between book buyers and a more general audience.

The appeal of such book apps to the ‘non-book buying’ customer base could pose as many problems for the book publishing industry as it does opportunities. Will the traditionalist book buyer, the type that dotingly populate Foyles and Waterstones and profess a nostalgic love for paper, bricks and mortar and reading in the bath, take to book apps? And bearing in mind the falling profits of the major book retailers in the UK, should publishers pursue this customer when potentially much larger audiences lie in wait at the other side of an iPad screen?

For independent book publishers, this dilemma is an exciting yet worrying prospect. How can independent presses be expected to create mobile apps that meaningfully enhance the reading experience with much smaller budgets? And what can they do if they have never met or worked with a software engineer or if the prospect of risking £100,000 on a single title is unthinkable? The presentation by Naomi Alderman, a successful novelist with Penguin, perhaps unwittingly offered answers to these questions, and laid out a blueprint for independent publishing success on new digital platforms.

2. Low-end Digital Book Publishing: Talk by Naomi Alderman, a novelist and games writer.

Alderman introduced her latest project to the audience, which was called Zombies, Run!. It’s a running app for the iPhone that encourages you exercise by immersing you in an interactive story, where you are being pursued by an army of zombies. Working with her friend Adrian Hon at the London based company Six to Start, a company that specialises in making ‘game-like stories’, Alderman pitched the concept to the American crowdfunding website’s online community.

She asked for US $12,500 to produce the Zombies, Run! app but within a short space of time had raised over $72,000 from Kickstarter funders. The project has been such a success that Alderman has stopped writing her latest novel for Penguin to develop the app, and she has also been approached by television and advertising companies in the US looking to tap into some of its success.

While Zombies, Run! stretches the idea of what a ‘book’ is, Alderman’s experiences were instructive, and she shared a few points she thought would-be digital book publishers could learn from. Here is a summary of the points she made:

– Work on projects that are fun to make, as you’ll have to spend a lot of your time doing them. Don’t be cynical and try to second guess the market, as you’ll probably be wrong anyway.

– Use smallness to your advantage, and collaborate closely with others – i.e. writers, techies, designers – at every stage of a project’s development. (An aside: Steve Jobs held a very  similar viewpoint, and implemented this process on a much larger scale at Apple with his renowned ‘parallel production’ industrial process, in which marketing, design, strategy and engineering departments were involved at every stage of the product development cycle).

– Come up with concepts that can be developed and executed quickly, and make sure there are relatively minimal costs involved so you lessen your financial risk. You should try to make your money back immediately or even before the release of your product if this is at all possible.

– Don’t be afraid to share ideas with your audience wherever possible – it’s the execution of the idea that makes it special, not the idea itself. Alderman said offered a great way to communicate directly with an audience or as she put it ‘share the burden of creation with them’, especially as the most engaged audience members were actually investing in her project before it launched. No matter how small the audience, talking to them will give you a better idea of what they want, she suggested, and they will give you a strong sense of whether your idea is ‘big enough to pursue’.

It struck me that the low risk, fast return approach to digital ‘book’ publishing outlined by Naomi Alderman could well be the future for both independent presses and individual authors. It just makes sense.

Her presentation provoked a lot of questions, and perhaps the most pertinent of them all was one she wondered aloud: why do I need a book publisher?

In an era of electronic distribution, what does a publisher do that justifies such a very large slice of an author’s pie? Exactly where do book publishers create value these days? With mass cutbacks across the book industry, editorial assistance is no longer one of the services offered; Alderman admitted as much when she said she was working on her fourth novel and had yet to receive any significant editorial assistance from Penguin.

Today a book publisher will justify their stake in a literary venture with a sum of advance money (risk capital), book printing services and some fairly workaday marketing and PR work. In the case of Penguin there is also the intangible halo effect of being associated with a famous and distinguished books ‘brand’. But does this basic service justify an approximate 90% ownership of the commercial property created by an author, for near perpetuity?

Ultimately, it was this rhetorical question that summed up the conclusions drawn across the multiple talks at Publish!. In the medium term, book publishing companies will need to work much harder to justify themselves to authors and readers, and it is likely that it will be the savvy authors and startup companies that pose the greatest threat to their existence in the long run, not Internet pirates or tech giants like Amazon.

For independents and larger digital book publishing pioneers alike, these are exciting times though. The future of the book publishing industry will likely be shaped by the startups and publishers who are smart enough to identify the new patterns and build their businesses accordingly. It’s all up for grabs.

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Posted by in Creative Economy | December 12, 2011 4:53PM |

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