First off, I feel the need to emphatically state that nobody wants a strong, vibrant book business more than me. I am a self-declared cheerleader for this industry. But it seems the right time to put my pom poms aside for a while to make a more cautionary point.
In many ways, the worst thing to happen to book publishing has been the persistent strength of print books and the drop in sales of ebooks. Namely, the stalling of the digital transformation of the industry.
Yeah, I did say that. Let me explain.
Some might say that book publishing has weathered the transformation very well and is in a strong position. The numbers would tend to agree with that. Print sales up a notch, new bookshops opening, children’s book sales going from strength to strength. Time to put the kettle on then, sit back and put our feet up, yes?
Well, I tend to agree with Andrew Keen, the Internet critic and author who spoke at FutureBook in December. To paraphrase, he said publishing had come through the digital transformation mostly unscathed. However, he went on to say that this was down to good luck and not by any strategic play.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Five years ago publishers had no idea that ebooks would stall or that bookshops would bounce back. Let’s not forget the many predictions that print was dead - not to mention bookshops - and that we were heading for digital obliteration. I had many a conversation with industry folk who said they thought Waterstones would last only a couple more years.
During the early stages of the transformation, publishers threw money at a variety of digital initiatives: apps, ecommerce platforms, their own community websites... even buying the odd start-up. But big publishers spent big and lost big. I could easily list 10 initiatives that were launched with much fanfare, to be left unloved for 18 months and closed with a whimper. The intent may have been there, but the commitment certainly wasn’t. And further, their structures, people and processes did not allow for successful innovation at any scale.
But what does this matter if print sales are up and ebook sales are down? We’re fine, right?
Well yes, if we anticipate no further transformation happening. Or put another way, if we hope nobody else enters the industry looking to disrupt it; if no companies come along with new business models for books; if readers do not change how or what they buy; if no new technology emerges to offer readers a different experience, and if - a big if - Amazon, Google et al don't come up with yet more game-changing ideas. That’s a future dependent on a lot of unlikely ifs.
Instead, I would argue that this is exactly the time we should be building our own future, aggressively. Creating platforms that give us more ownership of the publishing & bookselling ecosystems. Building businesses which create new revenue streams.
The good news is that there are plenty of innovative models to draw inspiration from if we're commited to forging ahead.
Wattpad – an online community for writers to post chapters of books, fan fic, poetry and reach engaged readers for feedback - launched in 2006 and now has 45 million users and 300 million stories uploaded. Lost My Name – the platform for personalised picture books for kids - launched in 2012, has sold more than 2.6 million picture books, and has just signed a deal with Roald Dahl estate. Scribd.com - a book subscroption service - says it has over 500,000 subscribers paying $8.99/month for ebooks, audiobooks, and now news. BookBub – a simple daily email selling cheap ebooks - launched in 2012, has 5 million+ registered readers in US and 2 million in the UK, and recently launched in India. And NetGalley – a blogger and influencer network offering publishers a seamless book review process pre-publication - has grown since 2012 to reach 360,000 members worldwide.
What were you doing when Wattpad launched 11 years ago?
There are many other companies I could have chosen, but these five all offer value and service at different stages of the publishing ecosystem. And all of the founders came from outside of the industry.
There's plenty to learn, too, from companies that have diversified away from their core businesses to build new revenue streams. Conde Nast, the magazine publisher behind Vogue, now runs its own fashion & design college offering degrees and courses, and has also recently launched a fashion ecommerce site. Sawday’s has transitioned from a travel guide publisher to a luxury travel company (that sells books). Marie Claire, the magazine published by Time Inc, now has its own cosmetics ecommerce platform and a physical shop in London. And Johnson’s Baby products launched a website called BabyCenter in the US nearly 20 years ago offering advice through pregnancy. This has grown to become a comprehensive resource for parents and now has 45 million global monthly unique visitors and generates huge amounts of advertising revenue. Of course, the site also provides Johnson’s with real-time audience behaviour data and a huge email database to sell to as well.
It's interesting to note that all of the consumer-facing businesses above launched with new names and did not rely on their existing brands – we don't have Johnson’s For Babies or the Marie Claire beauty shop. They displayed the confidence to build new brands even when they already have exceptional traction and recognition with the old ones - a bold step that was central to their success.
So, are book publishers in a position to diversify in such a way? I simply refuse to believe that they can’t do so, while also maintaining their core proposition: to publish sensational books and nurture authors’ careers. And I genuinely believe we must, if we want to survive long-term. We need to get ahead of the next phase of disruption by disrupting ourselves and innovating with vision and commitment. This is not the time to sit back and hope the status quo will last. We might not weather the next wave with such good fortune.