Digital isn't dead for book publishers - we're just waking up from the first hangover

Digital isn't dead for book publishers - we're just waking up from the first hangover

In 2010 Steve Jobs announced another killer product that would propel tech companies, publishers and consumers into an exciting new era. The iPad launched tablet devices into the consumer consciousness in a way which few would have believed possible at the time. Now with over 40% of the worldwide population believed to own at least one tablet and 91% a smartphone, smart devices are here to stay.

So why did so many book apps fail to work?

In those heady days of early book app development, publishers commissioned developers in a landscape much more like the Wild West than you’d be believe possible unless you’d experienced it first-hand. We were in unknown territory which seemed rife with opportunity, but developer costs were extremely high - as were industry expectations - and consumer interest was practically non-existent. Which often led to digital ghost towns rather than the envisioned gold mines.

I always characterise this period as publishing experiencing its awkward teenage experimentation with digital. There were many developers “courting” publishers, with publishers equally keen to prove their digital prowess to their authors and agents (and each other of course). This led to some expensive apps which flopped spectacularly in commercial terms. Was it good for you? No, it wasn’t good for me either.

The ensuing relationships were often fraught with good intentions, angst and broken promises. They usually culminated in a bad consumer experience or an extremely mediocre one, doomed to eventual mothballing.

In the years which have followed we have endured endless prophecies on digital disruption. These have always featured a clear winner/loser message. Apps are king/apps are dead. Enhanced e-books are the future/they never had a future. Subscription would be the death of traditional bookshops/traditional bookshops are killing off subscription services. Websites rule/the web has failed.

Now the tide has apparently turned yet again, and apparently, our old reliable e-book is dead, as readers experience “screen fatigue” or decide to embrace that most literary of social media phenomena, the “shelfie”, fuelled by an apparent craze in bookshelf shopping.

One of the biggest challenges facing digital publishing is that as an industry we are not in control of consumer consciousness. We are now competing not merely with each other, but with other entertainment industries for the escapism choices of our consumers.

In the digital space, publishers are not yet meeting an existing user demand for an innovative narrative experiences - because there isn’t a demand to meet. The human race evolved with literature, in its physical printed forms, at its heart for centuries. But for books to retain that central place in the future we need to claim the digital reading space. We need to experiment and explore to help consumers discover the new reading experiences awaiting them.

Any digitally native reading experience is arguably going against learned behaviour. The rapid boom and gradual market consolidation of pure e-readers is a key example of this. Every aspect of a greyscale reader is designed to mirror the appearance and tactile experience of a physical book. They’ve now “lost their shine” and are no longer perceived as a trendy must-have. In other words - consumers have moved on.

For a start, what press coverage like this fails to acknowledge is the huge market for cloud reading, now supported by almost every computer and all smart devices. Just because fewer people are seen reading on kindles doesn’t mean the market has disappeared. Phones and tablets offer alternative access to our e-reading or digital listening libraries. The digital download business is positively booming with 28% growth last year. Nor should we confuse a maturing and contracting e-book market with a dying one.

Does this mean that digital is dead for book publishers? Of course not.

Across publishers of all sizes, there are still the tell-tale signs of an industry that’s cautiously experimenting with business models and content, learning and pivoting to support what works, and shying away from what doesn’t. To me, it feels as though we’ve woken from the digital hangover of the early ‘10s and found that we still have many more exciting, and commercial opportunities, to explore - but that we do need to be careful and considered in how we approach untested models and markets.

What this means in practice, is that we have to experiment in a commercially viable way to;bring our incredible world-class IP to life, through previously unexplored reading experiences. We will need to iterate in order to create new ways of accessing our content, and publishers will continue to innovate via projects. Some of these will fail - but we need to be taking risks, because if we don’t, our customers will follow the tech companies who do.

HarperCollins UK is totally committed to working with the most exciting partners, such as Hopster and talkRADIO, to find wholly new ways to bring books to life digitally. We plan to lead the pack, not follow it (such as our team championing the inaugural national LoveAudio campaign). We work to create outstanding new reading experiences, and will always do so, with our talented authors and illustrators firmly at the heart of what we do.

We're not jaded by our not-always-successful experiences with digital. We're excited and motivated, and ever more committed to avoid false dichotomies and unrealistic expectations . Let's hope the rest of the book trade feels the same.