Books outside the box: lessons for publishers from Macy’s, HBO and H&M

Books outside the box: lessons for publishers from Macy’s, HBO and H&M

What’s the fastest way for publishers to accelerate their innovation? By taking lessons from other industries. Here are six brands doing work that could apply to books, from Macy’s to HBO.

If you missed columns one and two, here’s a quick recap: the business of books seems to have skipped the memo about innovation. Never mind the duck with its serene demeanour despite strenuous subaquatic paddling, when it comes to the animal kingdom, publishing is the salmon, desperately swimming upstream against the current, attempting to leap up waterfalls and vault the rapids. So how can you get ahead of the pack and ensure that innovation is that the heart of your business? Taking a look outside of your industry and spotting what other brands are doing is one of the quickest ways to find inspiration…


When’s the last time you saw something truly exciting and different in book retail? Yes, you know it’s all about experiential, but how can you make that work without investing a lot of time and money?

Look to Macy’s STORY concept, which has just launched across America after a successful NYC pilot. Macy’s has unveiled standalone retail spaces throughout its department stores, with a new STORY theme launching every six weeks. The initial launch focused on the theme of colour, showcasing products from new brands as well as more established ones, across fashion, food, homes and more. STORY also includes a calendar of in-store events, with brands being invited to get involved—think children’s art workshops from Crayola, and MAC enabling shoppers to create their own palettes.

Apart from the excitement of something new and a fresh reason for shoppers to stop by, this a great way to test out new products and brands—and create exclusive products and events too. How about a pop-up retail space within your store with a theme changing every few weeks? You could invite writers and publishers to get involved and host events—and perhaps even try selling those non-book products you’ve been wondering about?


How can you work with charities in a way which a) feels genuine and b) isn’t just the same old partnership format everyone expects? Look to HBO’s #bleedforthethrone initiative for inspiration. Working with the Red Cross, HBO promoted the new season of "Game of Thrones" by inviting fans to donate blood—playing on the fact that so many of the show’s characters have lost a pretty considerable amount of blood in battles since GoT first aired. Anyone who participated and gave blood received a free GoT poster, and was also entered into a draw to win a couple of places for the show’s exclusive season eight premiere.

So, what do you need to know? This is really about thinking how you can create campaigns that your customers will genuinely want to get involved in—and that incite that natural interaction we all know is so important. Volunteering, raising money, making donations—there’s so many ways you can run a campaign that feels fun, relevant and important. And helping people to do good = giant bonus.


We all know how many thousands of fantastic books there are out there, lining bookshop shelves and filing warehouses. The challenge is how to help the people we know would love to read these books find them. As a general rule, book recommendation doesn’t really work—outside of speaking to a bookseller in person—but perhaps you could put your own customers to good use, and allow them to make suggestions of what to read?

Itsapark is a new online platform from the H&M Group, inviting people to post style questions, allowing them to crowdsource sartorial advice. Other users can answer their questions and suggest items from H&M’s own brands plus a wide selection of others including Topshop, Sezane and Ganni.  Better still—the company has put influencers to good use, inviting them to take a leading role in answering questions, generating shoppable visual guides and creating interesting, evergreen content too. Wouldn’t those influencers you keep asking to participate in another ‘blog tour’ love to create a themed holiday reading guide, for example? Or take 20 minutes a week to make book recommendations?


Forget ensuring your eco-credentials are impeccable, how about owning the sustainability game? The City of New York’s #WearNext campaign is designed to address the issues of waste, pollution and recycling in the fashion industry. The local government’s campaign includes a digital map guiding New Yorkers to places where they can recycle or sell old garments, and encourages people to share their own #WearNext experiences.

How can you become part of the conversation around sustainability and the circular economy? And even better, one including the public sector? Helping customers to recycle or sell their books—perhaps rewarding them with a discount? You could even go one step further and involve organisations like the Book Fairies or Books on the Underground…

Trend spotlight


I won’t bother throwing any stats about older women at you, but suffice to say they’re pretty much absent from ads, and that gendered ageism is a very, very real thing. Especially if you’re a woman over 50. When’s the last time you saw anything at all about that massive life change that affects 50% of the population? I’m talking about the menopause. Just because we only ever hear an embarrassed snippet about hot flushes, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

New US-based digital health platform Rory specialises in products, services and advice for women 45-65, while Comfort Zone is an Italian skincare brand designed for women going through the menopause, developed by a nutridermatologist and a holistic hormone expert. Closer to home, Holland & Barrett’s Me.No.Pause campaign addressed what’s been termed ‘the last taboo’, with ads showing women reflecting on the loss of femininity, identity and self. And fashion line Become offers genuinely stylish pieces proven to significantly reduce the severity and impact of hot flushes and night sweats caused by menopause.

So how can you create products or services for this vital stage of life, and be the brand to really open up a conversation about the menopause? It’s no good talking about making space for women, if that excludes some women. Dedicated publishing imprint/ campaign/ festival/ pop-up, anyone?


We’re pretty used to the Deliveroo model, but Liquorette’s new delivery service is just a little bit more exciting than ordering a pizza. The London bar has just launched a collection of cocktails that you can order and have delivered within the hour—would you rather a glass of that boring Italian red on the side, or a mixologist-created Quiet Storm (whisky, fig leaf liqueur and Martini Ambrato finished with a hint of Aphrodite bitters)? There’s also an option to create your own custom-made cocktail—just select your favourite ingredients and they’ll send one your way. Each delivery includes a Liquorette shaker so you can play bartender too.

Cocktails aside, this is all about the experience. A customer can order a book online, but you have no control over their reading experience at home, do you? Could you offer a Deliveroo-style service with your latest launch? A judiciously-mixed old fashioned and a couple of delicious snacks would work perfectly with that new thriller. Or how about a cup of the very same rose tea featured in the romance novel you’re pushing? Maybe a scented bath bomb and a couple of delicate raspberry biscuits too…


Launch a service with your very competitors? In today’s cutthroat times, you must be MAD. But that’s exactly what Barclays, Lloyds and Natwest have done—launching a shared banking hub, open until 8pm seven days a week. The pilot space is designed with local businesses in mind—and offers flexible services from all three banks.

So how about a space curated by a local indie bookshop within Waterstones? Or a pop-up store focusing on BAME literature featuring works from ALL of the big publishers, and organised jointly? Even a co-created book, celebrating a common theme? It’s time to think outside the box—and working together is so important, because we all want to secure a bright future for books.