Audio, VR and mobile fiction dominate the agenda at PubTech Connect, New York

Audio, VR and mobile fiction dominate the agenda at PubTech Connect, New York

With sales in the sector surging, excitement about everything audio was ubiquitous at Tuesday’s PubTech Connect conference. Co-sponsored by the New York University Center for Publishing and Publishers Weekly, the 200-strong meeting was all about making the case for reaching book audiences through podcasting especially, but also via a variety of other tech-enabled means: short-form mobile fiction, virtual reality, Instagram, even Alexa.  

Despite the upbeat tone, some anxieties were evident, about Facebook’s power and recent penchant for changing rules, and more fundamentally, about losing identity, retaining quality, and identifying mission in a changing world. “Transparency,” “connection,” “authenticity,” and “flexibility” were keywords, all to be maintained amidst the flux.

The day started with a three-way conversation between Sam Dolnick, assistant managing editor of the New York Times, a fifth-generation member of the family that controls the paper, who’s deeply involved in digital initiatives; Pamela Paul, whose remit was recently expanded from Sunday book review editor to take charge of all books coverage; and MSNBC commentator Anand Giridharadas, asking the questions.

L to R: Anand Giridharadas, Pamela Paul, Sam Dolnick

For too long the paper had been approaching books, even digitally, through print eyes, in “a mishmash that made no sense,” Paul explained. “Our challenge was to think what coverage would look like to a digital reader.”

“I’ve got a seven-year-old daughter who’s a giant reader of audio, going around the house listening to books on a Nook,” Dolnick interjected. “It’s extraordinary and exciting how much she takes for granted. Sometimes, it’s “Alexa, play: ...” He sees audio as a gateway for his daughter to develop “the hunger to get lost in a book.” 

Podcasts are among the paper’s most successful new incarnations, but “we need to figure out each platform. We’re studying Alexa really closely; we haven’t fully cracked what people want on phones, or what VR is for,” Dolnick said. Digital has also caused a rethink of mission. “We’ve traditionally been the voice from the mountaintop; now, we’re trying to come down and help people understand their world.” One example: “We can help you find the next book you’ll love.” Earlier this year, the Times joined with Public Broadcasting’s NewsHour to start a monthly book club.   

 For her part, Paul has moved from “review-centric,” to showing how books “are integrated in our culture and coverage.” She pointed to a story that went online this week focusing on fifteen books by women, touching on the current moment – gender equity, racism, migration, etc. - and how it’s being addressed in fiction.  Tellingly, it won’t be in the print edition until March 25.

Dubious at first about Instagram for books, she followed her readers, and saw it could be “amazing, and we will go into that area.”  This week, the NYT announced a monthly audio bestseller list, a decision a year in development. “We had to be sure we had all the ways people listen covered, to guarantee integrity of the list.”

In a panel devoted to innovators, Amanda Hesser, cofounder/CEO of nine-year-old Food52, a community she started with another passionate cook focused on “everything you need in the kitchen and for home-life,” asserted: “it’s easy to create a crappy podcast, and really hard to create a great one.” Food52 started, then killed one after six months, studied the competition, rethought, and relaunched.

L to R: Amanda Hessler, Michael Mignano

Hesser, a former food editor for the Times, and partner Merrill Stubbs, “bootstrapped” the company with a two-book deal from Bob Miller, then at HarperStudio (now heading Flatiron). “He worked to get us a $100,000 advance upfront, which is how we started.” Since then, Hesser has done more books, through a Food52 imprint at PRH.

She advises “growing an audience organically. You can pay for traffic, but it won’t stick around. Partner with the right companies on things like email sweepstakes. Our Instagram audience is two million; to get the first million, we did a weekly contest.” 

What sells influences what the site writes about, and being quick to adapt is important. “If people come to buy dryer balls, we write about stain removal. Searches for gluten-free were going down, and cake searches up, so we launched a cake column.”

Kristin Fassler, marketing v.p. for Ballantine Bantam Dell, described how PRH partnered with the Times to help Graham Sack, an actor/PhD candidate/huge fan of George Saunders create a virtual reality mini-motion-picture for Lincoln in the Bardo, a book whose ghosts and spirits were especially suited to such treatment. The Times was experimenting with VR, and its demographic matched Saunders’ readers.

Usable via desktop, tablet, or mobile, it was integrated into the author’s tour; goggles were given out for “viewing parties” in stores, where cast members enacted dramatic scenes. The audiobook itself was groundbreaking, using two hundred narrators.

“The VR got us very exciting coverage; improved the experience of the book; and got us tens of thousands of names for a Saunders e-letter,” Fassler said. It helped sell 400,000 copies and make a #1 bestseller. It was also very expensive – by no means feasible for most books.    

Finally, two “mobile fiction” entrepreneurs stood out. San Francisco-based Prerna Gupta founded Hooked (profiled by FutureBook here) in 2015 with her husband, updating the epistolary novel to 1000-word text-message chats using free starters to get an audience aged 13-35 – not necessarily readers -“hooked,” then charging. In 2017, the company passed 40 million downloads. 

Prerna Gupta

Molly Barton, a former Penguin global digital director, is CEO/cofounder of Serial Box (profiled by FutureBook here), wanting “to do Dickens for the digital age,” targeting a similar demographic to Gupta’s, people for whom books may feel “daunting.”  To mobile phones she delivers thirty-minute episodes (sixty-minutes read via audio), written by teams of novelists working collaboratively.

The first episode is free, after which it costs $1.59 for a week or $18 for a season. Hollywood studios are interested; a TV show is in development; S&S has bought hardcover rights to three serials; rights have also been sold to a Scandinavian publisher; a Julian Fellowes project in being done in collaboration with Hachette. Barton would be delighted to explain more, at the next publishing meeting on the calendar: LIBF.