Cat's cradle

Content industries are defined by the formats they use, confined by the speed at which they operate, and refined by the way their audience behaves. Publishers now operate at different rates, across multiple formats, targeting readers in different ways with differing products—some print, some digital, and many that exist between the two.

This week’s Lead Story takes an in-depth look at this developing marketplace ahead of the FutureBook Conference in two weeks, where what we are calling the “new publishing” will be put under the microscope. The sector is marked by its positivity, and rightly so. Some of the best apps I’ve seen recently—including HarperCollins’ A Game of Thrones: Get into the Books, Agatha Christie Ltd’s Mr Quin app, and Vika Book’s In the Shadow of Things—show a new understanding about how moving away from linear formats enables us to approach content in completely different ways—or, as in the case of Lost my Name’s personalised print-on-demand product, build books how readers want them.

Yet this new publishing remains an area under-publicised and only partially understood. As Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page has acknowledged, publishers have struggled to build new digital products that can be scaled, while the invidious price deflation that plagues many digital marketplaces has undermined the viability of the book app. Meanwhile, discoverablity—in cyberspace everyone can hear you scream, but no one listens—and the need to constantly update digital products means there is often a yawning chasm between the effort needed at launch (and thereafter) and the return on investment.

However, this is book space and publishing needs to fill it. I don’t mean this in a frivolous way. But if, like me, you were following the dreadful events in Paris at the weekend on social media, as well as the more traditional sources such as the radio, TV and newspapers’ websites, then you were witnessing both form and content breaking boundaries only recently erected, as audiences’ demand for news reshapes delivery (and vice versa).

The printed book is the great stabilising force, around which we are fortunate to orbit, but the way we access content—from stories to information—is changing each and every day in ways that are sometimes obvious, sometimes not. This week a TV advert based on a popular children’s book character (hitherto presumed dead), amplified by 12.5 million views on YouTube, helped sell 75,000 copies of a printed book through a single channel at launch. A Christmas calamity? No. It was publishing unlatched, released from convention and responding to how audiences now discover and share content. Less a dead cat bounce, more a new beginning.