2015 -- the year of being brave

2015 -- the year of being brave

Editor's note from Porter Anderson: In what is normally our Tuesday spot for my colleague Philip Jones' weekly FutureBook column, we're glad to have a chance to take a wider look ahead, thanks to the kindness of a group of key industry observers we've called on to pitch in with very short looks ahead. We start, then, with Jones' well-considered overview essay in which he references several of our guests' comments to come. And then we'll turn to those guests for their viewpoints. Here's Bookseller editor Philip Jones:


Tis the season to make predictions, and so we asked digital luminaries from both sides of the pond for their 50 words about digital publishing in 2015.
Here, by way of introduction is my own prediction and analysis about what may pass next year:

In 2014 the digital book business enjoyed a somewhat puzzling year. We now know that the ebook market has settled (for now), and we know now that many of the digital experiments conducted in the years before failed to find a commercial model. What we are left with is a fickle ebook market allied to a print book market only slowly recovering. Hence as Sara Lloyd notes in her outlook, we must look to a more diverse base of business models and different content models for real growth.

There will therefore be a re-emphasis on content creation, particularly content that plays well across a number of different channels, and there will be continuing focus on keeping what channels are already open, open, while always developing new routes to the consumer.

I think we will also see a refinement in the types of things publishers, and others, do (and think they want to do). From Black Crown to Paperight, the story was the same in 2014: “I still believe in that idea, but I’m sad that we couldn’t make it viable at scale.”

We saw this reckoning manifest in the people over the year: some such as Henry Volans at Faber moved up; others such as Nathan Hull moved out (from Penguin to Mofibo) to seek new opportunities.

We are often told to fail, then fail again better, and though I admire this Beckettian dramaturgy, in 2015 I expect the sector to get more right, than it gets wrong — or at least back projects that have a longer term play -- and then stay with them. As Sophie Rochester says in her piece, one of the interesting thing to watch in 2015 is whether we will see a deceleration of digital R&D from publishers projects. My sense is that what she says may be a “deceleration”, will actually be publishers asking tougher questions before they start on these things, and then only setting out when there is a clear commercial pathway. Such projects will be harder to launch -- but more seaworthy once they embark.

This is good news. The book business emerges strong and well-formed from the first dazzling shift in digital, but now needs to get more serious about how it operates in this new world. I suspect that some of the moves we’ve seen in 2014, particularly around brands, subscription, and website development, will emerge more fully formed in 2015. As Dave Morris puts it in his comment about content, “The pieces are all there.”

The same is also true across the business: publishers can now publish in a range of forms and formats, they can do so while operating a number of different business models, and can now meet their audiences in an array of different places: but they need to do this strategically and with purpose. We will therefore see greater differentiation in publishing and content creation, a recognition that there genuinely are different markets for distinct types of book—none of them devaluing of the others.

What has most troubled me in 2014 was this sense that of a market becoming complacent. Or as the agent Piers Blofeld puts it, become predictable again. But I don’t think the book market does boring anymore — in the past decade we have witnessed the collapse of one major book chain, Borders, and the near collapse of others; the loss of one major distributor; the invention of the iPad, and Kindle devices; the reinvention of self-publishing; and the rise and rise of social media platforms that put readers and authors together in one space — it therefore seems unlikely that this seismic change won’t continue.

In 2015, in the UK sees two majors publishers moving home—HarperCollins from west to east London, and Hachette from north/central London to the river-side—and we cannot underestimate how this may change both businesses. We will also see much later in the year, the realisation of Amazon’s new central London headquarters. More widely, there is also perhaps a first hint that Amazon is just beginning to puff a little harder, as the original start-up finds this pace of continuing disruption taking its toil, and with analysts beginning to ask serious financial questions of it, and its founder Jeff Bezos, it may be forced to relent a little. Even a hint of this will give succour to its competitors, and I do expect serious rivals to emerge in the book space, and that could come from Scribd, Wattpad, FaceBook, Apple or perhaps even Penguin Random House.

Finally, what really interests me in 2015 is the reader. Earlier this year, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction winner Eimear McBride reminded us that the “reader is fearless and must not be underestimated”. The reader has adapted particularly well to this new environment, showing that they are not put off by different forms, or formats, and are willing adopters of new business models, that they happily use alongside the old ones. As a sector it can often appear that we look to ourselves rather than to the end-user when we think about content creation, or the wider services we put alongside these pieces of work. In 2014 the reader was not well served by the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, while at the end of the year the hullabaloo that followed publication of Zoella’s ghost-written Girl Online showed that the reader has a different kind of role in this new world.

In 2015, we should look to this reader more, they are active participants in this sector: they are the real change-agents.


And now, we're pleased to have the quick insights of a strong gathering of observers whose input we've requested. Thanks to each of you for  responding so thoughtfully.

 

Molly Barton, start-up founder, former Penguin Global Digital Director:

Which business model or start-up will be the darling of 2015?

Will it be social reading? Not yet, too early. Subscription? I don’t think so.

Look for data-driven marketing from companies such as The Next Big Book, artisanal publishing approaches crafted by companies like Archer which just released Audible CEO Don Katz’s novel Home Fires, and further experiments with contextual commerce like Hachette’s Twitter experiment.


Piers Blofeld, agent, Sheil Land:

In 2014 things became predictable again – 2015 will continue that.

Self-publishing will increasingly be seen as an expensive waste of time for most authors and Amazon will increasingly need to play by the same set of rules as everyone else.

And so more money and more opportunity for authors and publishers will continue to work its way into the system.


Tom Bonnick, business development manager, Nosy Crow:

We feel fairly optimistic about digital publishing in 2015.

Market conditions are still challenging -- particularly on the App Store and around children’s full colour and enhanced ebooks -- but we remain convinced that it is possible to build a long-term business around these formats, and we have no plans to move away from them.

Increasingly, we're approaching digital publishing as a place to create content that can be exploited across multiple platforms -- in January, for instance, we’ll publish simultaneous print and enhanced-e picture-book editions of our award-winning fairytale apps.


Liza Daly, vice-president, engineering, Safari:

I expect to see continued innovation in both form and content to come from outside the traditional publishing industry.

The most successful platforms will be those like Medium which provide equally high-quality authoring, curation, and publishing functionality, while retaining the spirit of the open web.

 


Dan Franklin, digital publisher, Penguin Random House UK:

Firstly, if the last 5/6 years have been about the transition of the print book into electronic form, then 2015 will start to see how digital feeds back into print.

How do digital products and strategies transform, support, and subvert the book now that it is both print and digital?

Secondly, the consensus is that digital reading has fuelled more beautiful print books, so now the focus will turn to how to make digital reading itself more beautiful and more enriched, in ways you might not expect.


Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director, Pan Macmillan:

We'll see further digital diversification and watch the physical world continue to shape-shift as the "standard" ebook market continues to plateau off. In other words, digital growth in an otherwise flattening market will have to come from a more diverse base of business models (eg bundling, subscription, social channels becoming retailers and more) and content models (eg e-only 'shorts; self publishing hybrids ).

As e-reading moves to tablets, it will be interesting to see if browser-based reading models gain any traction, removing consumer lock-in to proprietary download systems.

I imagine and hope physical retail will continue to adapt -- focusing even harder on curation, experience and hand-selling -- and to be shaped by digital (more story space than storage), and that events -- which connect readers with each other and with authors in a shared experience -- will also continue to become more important as people look increasingly for the physical connection in a digitally overwhelming world.

I believe we'll also continue to see growth in the children's physical book market as digital remains a minority interest for this sector: in particular parents craving more offline time for their kids but teens also showing a love for the "retro" physical object!

Discovery -- of the backlist in particular -- will continue to be a challenge, and creative ways to solve this including new digital and physical solutions will emerge.


Crystal Mahey-Morgan, founder of OWN IT! Entertainment Limited:

Big publishing houses will clamour to jump on the YouTuber bandwagon. As a result we’ll see a rise in formula-driven books which lack true insight about the audience they are intended for.

Meanwhile genuine experimental digital minds within these large houses will get frustrated with the slow-paced approach to digital evolution. A few will leave to set up on their own and explore digital native projects that truly push the boundaries of storytelling.

Pockets of revolutionary thinking could mean 2015 witnesses some groundbreaking commissioning!


Craig Mod, writer and designer, advisor to Medium, creator of @SayHi

Will 2015 be the year Facebook goes from pointer to partial-platform for publishers? Maybe.

If so, it’ll be pitched as better user experience, and in the end, it will be — faster, cleaner, cached, consistent.

Facebook will allow publishers to place ads on these hosted articles, quelling revenue concerns. Users will feel less nauseated by swimming in the wide, open, largely badly designed mobile web. (We’re looking at you, Forbes.com)

But we’ll all be worse off as diversity and competition fall, and once again, publishers hand over the keys to their destiny to Silicon Valley.


Dave Morris, game designer and author, Dragonkin Productions

Convergence 2.0 has given us publishers jumping the tracks to make games, interactive reworkings of literary classics (guilty), and esoteric text-based installations.

We await an original novel where interactivity is integral and serves to deepen emotional involvement with the story.

A Citizen Kane for interactive prose. The pieces are all there.


Richard Nash, serial entrepreneur, digital media consultant, start-Up advisor

The great limit to innovation in 2015 will remain the lack of a viable *stack on which new products can be developed.

Frankly, this aspect of Amazon's structure damages publishing far more than its pricing strategy.

Distributed micro-commerce, browser-based reading, and publishers' belated embrace of APIs will eventually solve this, but not before much stagnation.

*The “stack” is a term widely used in business and technology to mean a complete set of resources: an operating system, a server, a database, middleware. Because developers now have modular access to every layer in the stack, there is scope to create and improve services rapidly and at increasingly lower cost, both within and atop the stack. The “book stack” comprises the books themselves, metadata, a payment system, a reading system.


Sophie Rochester, founder, The Literary Platform:

This year we saw digital start-ups shut down, e-book sales plateau and Daunt declaring that “the book is back." 

So the interesting thing to watch in 2015 is whether we will see a deceleration of digital R&D from publishers, and increased focus on digital’s continued impact on communications and consumer insight.

 


Porter Anderson, associate editor, The FutureBook:

You may have noticed  that few of our excellent contributors here have mentioned authors -- the indispensable creators of all there is to publish, the founders of the feast, the storytellers. None of them has said this, but I suspect this might be because to hazard a comment about authors today can call down tremendous blowback. The role of the wirter has become emotionalised.

This is why, even before the resolution of the Amazon-Hachette spectacle, we began -- thankfully -- to hear leading voices in the independent movement (Hugh Howey chief among them) calling for a stand-down, recommending less harsh rhetoric aimed at traditionally publishing colleagues. The result: more space is opening up for shared understandings of the creative process and its evolution on the digital landscape. 

Not that all members of the self-publishing "commentariat," as Mike Shatzkin has called it, have heeded the call. Snarling comments still land on articles and posts, sarcasm shoving aside logic, bitterness giving the lie to protestations of happy independence. 

But it's hard to think of a scenario in which collegial exchange could be more important. Authors today face a shape-shifting marketplace, to borrow Sara Lloyd's good use of the term -- what Philip Jones rightly calls a fickle place that no longer can be touched with the hand and expected to hold still. Do you know Alex Proyas' 1998 film Dark City with its massive reconfiguration of the urban infrastructure each night? Here, great, unseen algorithmic forces reshape the routines and remake the rules hourly; once winning sales tactics fall apart; platform exclusivity-demands create dilemmas that would baffle even the most seasoned commercial veterans, let alone business newbies whose job is suddenly not just to write but to promote and sell.

In 2015, we can hope to see this least organized and most disparate element of the industry slow down, raise its heads, look at each other with new grace, and begin to talk as friends and associates, maybe less given to disparaging the establishment and more interested in rebuilding the centricity of content. Once a less contentious mood pervades the writing world, the industry, itself, will then be able to respond to it more healthily, less warily, let's hope more generously. Perhaps some of the more punitive traditions of old contractual patterns can be revised at last.

The authors deserve this for and among themelves, yes. But so does  the industry. Digital is enough to deal with, for all of us. 

I wish you, then, a 2015 filled with more prosperity, good will, clarity of potential and means...and less drama.