Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine, published a book this year titled The Inevitable. In it he describes a number of ways that future mortals might experience their best-loved products and services. I recommend it. Especially if you're struggling to align your digital karma with concepts like ‘filtering,' ‘becoming,' and ‘cognifying,' (and if you're reading this on an iPhone whilst listening to Spotify on the 7.45 to London Bridge, then I'd wager you are).
One chapter is devoted to ‘flowing,' which talks about how content finds its way around the interwebs and how, a few years from now, consumers of content ('readers') might interact with the stuff that publishers like to create. Another chapter is called ‘screening,’ which talks about how we interpret that content and share it. Many of the concepts are familiar: Kelly paints a future where access to content is free and immediate, discovery of it is personalised and social, consumption of it is fragmented, and everything is interlinked.
Kelly imagines an exciting time when a book is more than a book – it's a fluid artifact. Something like those wonderful moving newspapers from the world of Harry Potter: available on a new kind of paper that isn't really paper, or via a near field projection from your holographic contact lens. But as someone who spends a lot of time working with publishers like Hachette in the US, Elsevier in Europe and Oxford University Press in Australia, I wonder if his ideas are missing a point.
When it comes to reading, today’s technology can certainly be extrapolated to create an endlessly seamless and scalable future, but I can't help but feel that it does so at the expense of the reading experience.
Amazon’s new, luxury version of the Kindle retails for £270. It’s an upgrade for folks who already own the old plastic version. That device market is saturated and declining. At the same time, eBook sales are down 13%, audiobooks are up 38%, colouring books are up 1,100% (!), and – according to most analysts – sales of regular books are back in the black.
This wasn't the world we expected. Your stuff may be easier to acquire (thanks to the cloud and Amazon Prime) and consume (thanks to smartphones, a reading category that's grown by 7% this year), but the core product – the book – is no more shareable or fluid than it was when Wired Magazine first hit the shelves in 1993.
Reading a book is best done in solitude without a zillion bits and bytes of digital distraction nibbling in from the sidelines – be it from friends, advertisers, or other forms of 'native' content. Therefore it’s far more productive for publishers to focus their digital innovation efforts on activities that support the core act of reading.
Recent Squiz research into what today’s readers want – told us three things: firstly they wish to feel closer to their authors; secondly they want access to more content that's related to their books; and thirdly they need more books. This shouldn’t be surprising – selling more books to people who already buy books is a boundless marketing strategy. These are the people who read Harry Potter first and then tell all their friends about it.
What I find most interesting isn't the ability to crowdfund new authors, crowdsource new stories, or shoehorn books into fashionable new formats, it’s the ability to deliver new services that connect readers to the things that a publisher already governs: the author, the manuscript, and all of the snippets, backstories and might-have-beens that an author creates along the way.
It's simple: readers want access to more content and authors want to connect to readers. Publishers can be the matchmakers.
Think about it. Content is something that Amazon can't do so well. Publishers can. You own the stuff. The book is the end game, whether it's hardback, paperback or eBook (and whether it’s purchased online or in-store). You can use content to influence what happens before and after a reading experience in amazing new ways.
The trick is to use content and digital channels to establish more meaningful exchanges with readers. Social media is a start. It can help you listen and understand the topics that most interest your readers. It can also help you publish material in ways that scale beyond your core followings. Web analytics tools let you understand how readers find the content that bolsters their reading experience. Email and marketing automation tools allow you to give people even more of the good stuff, and CRM systems can help you capture all this information so that future campaigns are planned and executed with greater precision. And all of this work produces reams of data that can be aggregated to inform next year’s author advances and imprint development.
With these tools in place, new content-driven reader engagement strategies can be developed with greater confidence – because they are grounded in materials that you own and your readers value. Even better, they involve no new verbs, just good old-fashioned creative processes – more words, more pictures, perhaps more music – and a bit of wizardry behind the scenes to automate the key processes.
Give your readers the content they crave and you can transform how they discover your books. Do it well and you might even be able to attribute your digital marketing spend to your sales numbers. Good heavens, just cognify that.