Wanted for publishing – agile creatives prepared to jump… and find the target!


Felix Baumgartner jumping into space. Photo by Red Bull Content Pool / Rex Features

Are you ready to jump into the unknown? Photo by Red Bull Content Pool / Rex Features

Helping to provide the industry with new talent, I’m always tracking the skills and attributes required for future publishing. Whilst space-diving isn’t one of them (yet), a mind-set that embraces new ways of connecting writers to readers undoubtedly is. The need to imagine how content can be experienced by users is vital – and innovation has always been at the heart of this creative industry. Experimenting (and failing) and playing (whilst being smart about the growing data and consumer insight available for decision making) was one of the key themes of this week’s 2012 Futurebook conference.

Pottermore CEO Charlie Redmayne warned publishers against ceding their own creativity – advising them to learn from what the music and film industries have done well, and to drive the future as they have the past. Future publishers need to enable people to experience content in different ways, telling stories across platforms, supported by an effective rights structure for games, TV, film and education. Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber, recommended the space jump approach – urging us to enjoy the rush (sound advice from the man later named as the most inspiring digital publishing person at the Innovation Awards).

But in a pressurized environment how can publishers promote creativity?

Katharine Reeve, Head of Publishing, Bath Spa University, advocated digital away days (gamestorming/hack days) as a playground for problem solving, and a place to explore the multimedia, multiplatform potential of deep content and immersive experiences. Editors should work alongside developers and authors when remodelling. Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah raised the need for an agile, iterative approach to product creation. Others talked about the importance of mixing up teams and avoiding silos. Simon Johnson, Group M.D. HarperCollins UK advised less hierarchical structures within companies. One example was to start by crowdsourcing ideas within the organization – something IBM has been doing for years.

Extending the creative approach – playing together

With the acceleration of change, keeping pace is an issue even for digital natives. The importance of staying nimble and not just acting fast – but first – was an issue raised by Will McInnes, author of Culture Shock: a Handbook for 21st Century Businesses. McInnes cited Boyd’s application of the fighter pilot OODA Loop (Observe/Orient/Decide/Act) as a strategy for taking control and moving before the competition. As technology and the world of reading and writing challenge us to respond differently, one of the ways to stay ahead will be to find the right partner for the right project at the right time. As we enter this next phase of discovering all that digital ‘books’ can be, Dominique Raccah spoke of the need for ‘co-opetition’, and how partnerships can add value to processes and products. The success of this joining together can be seen in The Sonnets app – a project involving Faber, Bloomsbury/Arden, Touchpress and Illuminations.

Publishers are working with other brands, and in this context, the coming together of the biggest brands in the Penguin and Random House deal makes sense. Strategic partnerships are on the rise across the industry. At the conference we heard about Kobo’s alliances with world-class retailers such as WH Smith in the UK, FNAC in France and Portugal, and the significance of their association with Rakutem, Japan’s largest e-commerce outfit (Mike Serbinis, CEO, and Michael Tamblyn, EVP Content, Sales and Merchandising). Barnes & Noble accelerated Nook’s expansion by partnering with Microsoft.

Foyles announcement on the day – to build the bookshop of the future (a new 40,000 square foot shop) with the help of everyone present took collaboration to a new level. Inviting the trade to share the vision is certainly one solution, and I for one have volunteered to join the workshop. Of course, as Philip Downer pointed out at the Galley Club a couple of days later, if they fail to include the customer in this vision they risk just replicating what they have done before.

So, an open mind – but what else will future publishing require?

Another theme of the day was how to build on the fundamental shift from product to user, particularly in trade publishing. New skill sets are required in both product development and marketing. Focusing on users and building a community is not new, but it is becoming a much more essential part of the business. Obsessing about what motivates end customers and what satisfies their needs occupies the thoughts of Lonely Planet MD Dominic Rowell. LP has always been a business where word of mouth recommendation counts. Today there are many more opportunities for our communities to interact in a social, personal, non-linear way. Being the ‘go to’ place for an answer to ‘where is the advice I can trust?’ can only pay off.

For Stephen Page it’s all about on and off line conversations. The popularity of events like The Faber Social shows the value of communicating writing to readers.  Rebecca Smart, CEO of the Osprey Group, provided convincing evidence on how to make the relationship meaningful. In getting to know and surveying their readers, Osprey has successfully commissioned new series and sourced new content.

‘It’s about books & users not bells & whistles’

For Domique Raccah, Sourcebooks work on a new Shakespeare project is about solving problems for educators to make engagement with the text easier – there are different points of entry and this reader’s choice counts. In Put Me in the Story it’s about personalising the reading experience and finding new ways of involving young readers.

By focusing on the user experience, Kobo can provide a snapshot of reader behaviour that goes beyond the unit sale. Michael Tamblyn, Kobo’s self-confessed data addict, talked about ‘Life After Sales’: how many books are bought and not completed?  Which books were readers unable to set aside? Cloud data gives a new way to value a title beyond its purchase – who wouldn’t want to know which unsigned authors work is finished more than James Patterson’s? Do authors want feedback on whether they got it right?

Data and metrics – use ‘the Lynx effect’

The Lynx Effect. Photo by Rex Features

Does your metadata work like Lynx? Photo by Rex Features

Kobo pull whatever data they can from downloads and devices. Penguin Digital M.D. Anna Rafferty is another fan of audience data, whether that be the micro of SEO or the macro (Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, Allen Lane, 2012) – and I loved her description of metadata as a seductive perfume with ‘the Lynx effect’. Whether it is access to research tools like the Author Equity Score from the Codex-group.com or by interpreting all this delicious data, future publishers can have greater surety in their decisions. But as Nick Sidwell, Digital Publishing Manager of Guardian Books, points out, the stats don’t always equal success.  Instinct and passion can be harnessed too.

Believe in your brand and build it

In addition to harvesting data and cultivating fan bases, Charlie Redmayne advises we accentuate the positive. Publishers and other industry players have got lots right in the last few years and are now better placed globally. There are now multiple players in the space and there is a shift away from just producing product that replicates print. It is time to thrive. For Page, the publishing brands are on the rise – we should tell their stories and believe in them.

So jump – it really is an exhilarating time to be part of publishing’s future.

Further reading suggestions:

A year in digital publishing and what to expect in 2013 (from the Literary Platform)

The future for publishers is content creation, with a dash of Martini (report on last year’s Futurebook conference).

Chris Anderson (author of The Long tail), Makers, Random House Business (2012).

Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, W.W. Norton (2012).

One response to “Wanted for publishing – agile creatives prepared to jump… and find the target!

  1. Pingback: The uncomfortable truths of publishing: change and data | Kingston Publishing: inspiring future publishers·

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