10 things publishers have been doing (that we should celebrate)

10 things publishers have been doing (that we should celebrate)

Publishing is all too often, and all too easily, lambasted for all the things it does not do. But we should also acknowledge what has been happening. What publishers have been trying out and in what areas these initiatives have been working. 2014 has already been a sobering year for the business, with the loss of two redoutable indies (both scooped up by Hachette), and a continuing decline in sales of physical books (albeit at a slowing rate). But it has also been a year of innovation, with projects coming from a range of businesses that show-case how publishers are adjusting to this new environment and using the new tools on offer to their advantage.

There is a shrill debate taking place about publishing, prompted by the Hachette/Amazon negotiations, that seems far removed from the reality on the ground for many publishers and authors. I list ten projects below, which I think hint at a more accurate picture, but there are others, and I'd be delighted to hear from anyone else working across the business who wants to tell their innovations story on FutureBook.net. The best thing about the list below is how many of these idea don't come from a top-down or big-bang approach, but from people within publishing innovating and iterating.

1) The Twitter story redux. As The Bookseller reported yesterday novelist David Mitchell has begun to tell a 6,000-word story on Twitter. The idea was his own after first being persuaded to sign up to Twitter by his publisher. Mitchell now has more than 11k followers. His new book The Bone Clocks (h/b, £20) will be published on 2nd September, as part of a season of new fiction that includes books by Ian McEwan, David Nicholls, Ali Smith, Kate Mosse, and Michel Faber. Mitchell isn’t the first author to live tweet a story, but in engaging and growing his fan-base ahead of his September publication, he and his publisher are demonstrating how social media can be used to ramp up the publicity. As George Walkley, head of digital at Hachette UK, said: "There's a wider digital opportunity about how we use Facebook and Twitter to connect authors and readers. As we look at our publication, and look at pre-orders, it's a great chance for David not just to tell a story but also tell a global audience that there is a new novel coming in September."

2) Virtual festivals. HarperCollins’ first virtual Romance Festival, organised by my former colleague Sam Missingham. HC is one of the biggest romance publishers in the UK, but the really smart thing was to make it publisher agnostic, allowing Harper to invite authors and publisher voices from across the spectrum. The festival, which ran across the weekend (7th and 8th June), notched up over six thousand engaged users on Facebook, while the designated Twitter hashtag #Romance14 was tweeted nearly 4,509 times, with a potential reach put at 17.9 million timelines. More than 120 authors, including Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy and Sheila O'Flanagan, were involved in events such as Google Hangouts and Twitter interviews. Across social media, thousands of readers took part, with 6,400 engaged users on Facebook, calculated at a total reach of 75,000 people. Missingham has since said he hopes to run similar festivals for “crime, fantasy, teen and possibly some other areas too”. In June  Gollancz announced a one-day multi-media science fiction and fantasy festival at Waterstones Piccaddilly, featuring authors including Joanne M Harris, Ben Aaronovitch and Patrick Rothfuss. The event will include readings and panels at the shop, with activities also taking place across platforms including Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube.

3) Transmedia romance storytelling. Also, in the romance space, in May Harlequin Mills & Boon launched The Chatsfield, an immersive story-telling world built out of a book series M&B had already published. For HMB the attractions are two-fold: build direct links to heavy buyers of romance books, and experiment with new interactive ways of storytelling with different types of talent (one of its blogs is written by Sarah Wendell from Smart Bitches). Tim Cooper, m.d. at HMB, said at the time: "This isn’t a marketing campaign for those books, it is about creating an environment where those stories are told differently, and by building an audience we can monetise it in various different ways—including through product placement." Ironically, HarperCollins agreed a deal to acquire Harlequin Mills & Boon just as The Chatsfield launched. A publishing romance power-house working in the transmedia space looks to be becoming a reality.

4) A new Harry Potter story. Writer writes sequel to bestselling series might not seems an innovative gesture, but in the case of J K Rowling we’ll take that bar and throw it away. Do a Google search for “jk rowling new harry potter story”, and it comes up with 24m results, take JK Rowling out of that it ramps up to 116m results. The Bookseller’s own story was viewed 90,000 times. Pottermore began running a virtual Quidditch World Cup back in June. The new 1,500 story, written in the voice of Rita Skeeter, infamous gossip columnist of the wizarding world’s newspaper the Daily Prophet, saw Skeeter cast a bitchy eye over Harry Potter and his family and friends at the Quidditch World Cup final. Rowling's spokesperson said the author had "no plans" to write any further stories about the older Harry, but if anyone at Pottermore needed reminding of the power of Harry Potter, this was it.

5) Using Twitter for discoverability. #BookadayUK (neé #Bookaday): also coming out of HarperCollins (this time via Katie Espiner publishing director at Borough Press), was smart idea to harness the recommendation engine of a thousand voices via Twitter. Borough Press said it “nicked the idea from #recordaday”, and then drove it forwards into a promotion available across the trade. According to HarperCollins there have been 68,904 twitter mentions, across 32,553 users, with 474 blogs written. The promotion even managed a neat body-swerve rebranding as #BookadayUK after discovering that #Bookaday was already in use in the US. The hashtag has now been passed on, with Doubleday managing it throughout July, and The Bookseller’s We Love This Book taking it on in September.

6) Riding the surge in young adult writing. The UK’s first Young Adult Literature Convention, organised by the Booktrust’s Katherine Woodfine and children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, took place last weekend. Over two days in July YA authors connected with young readers with book signings and panel discussions that dealt with everything from teen sex and feminism to how to get published. The event generated a huge amount of coverage from traditional media outlets and on social media. Not strictly speaking a publisher led initiative, of course, but with heavy publisher involvement from its launch in February to its realisation last weekend, I'll take it as a +1 for publishing.

7) Social selling from Hachette. A publisher taking books direct to their audience, and leveraging fans to help it sell more copies of its books – goes to the (commercial) heart of what people have been saying about publishers needing to connect with “superfans”. The publisher, working with social commerce firm Buyapowa, will give "readers who really want to engage with an author, book or character the chance to engage with them on a deeper level and show and share their passion" in return for rewards. Plans for the future include "empowering" readers to co-create fan editions of classics and new releases, offering them the chance to personally curate a deal or offer, giving them the chance to appear in one of their favourite author’s books and helping them to earn money-can’t-buy rewards.

8) Serials unbound. Taking a leaf out of the self-publisher’s handbook, Headline’s decision to release Harriet Evans’ A Place for Us as a four-part e-book serialisation is a smart strategy aimed at growing Evan’s audience while also seeding demand for the paperback release in January 2015. The serialisations will be released on a monthly basis—from the 31st July through to 23rd October—as £1.49 e-books sold through several e-outlets, with Apple iBooks as Headline’s primary partner for the initiative. Headline has previously serialised novels—including those by erotica author Beth Kery and crime writer Michael Morley—but according to Elizabeth Masters, PR manager at Headline, "This is the first time we’ve serialised a novel with a big-brand campaign behind it with the intention of setting out our stall for an author’s career in the long term." Evans has moved from HarperCollins to Headline for this book, and Headline is setting out its stall in a bold innovative way.

9) FutureBook Hack. In backing the UK’s first industry-led hackathon the publisher partners—HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Pan Macmillan, Faber, and organising partners Blackwell, Midas, WME, and UCL—showed a commitment to open themselves up to disruption and innovation and a desire to engage with the development communities. The hack surpassed all of our expectations. Nearly 100 hackers took part in the weekend event, many working through Saturday night to deliver projects, set to address challenges set by publishers, by the Sunday deadline. In total 24 different teams presented their ideas, including a  “Britain’s Got Talent” style online audio competition, a search engine which finds books when seekers can only remember brief details about the cover or plot, and a Tinder for books. The winner went home with a £5,000 prize, while an impromptu second prize was awarded to the runner-up. As hack producer Blackwell’s Matthew Cashmore noted: “I’ve been running hack days for 10 years. I haven’t sat through such consistently good ideas as I’ve seen today in that decade.”

10) Virtual independent bookstores. Penguin Random House launched My Independent Bookshop to consumers in May, allowing readers, authors and bookshops to set up their own virtual bookstores recommending reads online. The website is the first of its kind from a major publisher which managed to link recommendations made in the digital and social media spheres (the platform is integrated with Facebook and Twitter, etc), with physical bookshops, as the titles linked to Gardeners’ Hive which gives indies a small commission on any purchase made. Over 70 indies signed up to My Independent Bookshop for its launch date among over 400 profiles altogether, including those from authors Terry Pratchett, Irvine Welsh, Dorothy Koomson, John Boyne, Samantha Hayes, SJ Bolton, Tony Parsons and Alastair Campbell.

Additional reporting, Benedicte Page, Lisa Campbell, Sarah Shaffi, and Charlotte Eyre