How conversations will shape the future of content retailing

How conversations will shape the future of content retailing

On 14th November, I had the pleasure to give a talk at London's FutureBook Conference, one of the key events for UK publishers. The context was "The future of content retailing", and this post is a development of the talk. 

During these more than four years since we started 24symbols, the definition of who we are has evolved, as well -- from a tech startup in the publishing industry, to an ecommerce site or a retailer. I never felt quite comfortable in any of these buckets.

One of the key reasons I started 24symbols was because I wanted to create a company where tech would be a means to an end, not an end in itself. This rules us out as a pure tech org (as important, critical and core tech can be). We don't feel that we're a pure retailer either. We sell subscriptions, yes, but our conversations have always been about user experience and reader engagement, beyond pure revenue.

Now we feel that we are starting to find the balance, with a great team of developers and designers, but also with an increasing team of editors, librarians, and digital publishers who have been at the forefront of the publishing world for years and have seen 24symbols as a promising middle-point that matches their love for publishing and books with the exciting future we are creating.

This is what the future of content retailing is for me.

But to make it clearer, there are four main aspects to this growth as a company:

1. The book on the cloud. I have written about this before in quite a lot of detail but I cannot say enough about the power of having books as services that can be accessed and processed in several ways and from which additional, value-added services can be created. As I always point out, services like Small Demons, or the API provided by DoubleDay for Kate Pullinger’s Landing Gear, should be doable through a books-as-a-service platform! without having to develop everything from scratch. This creates infinite new business and creative options for publishers, authors and readers.

2. Hybrid curation. Everyone was amazed when Amazon introduced its implicit personalization engine back in the 90s, and your previous searches inside of Amazon were being taken into account to modify the user experience that you, as a potential consumer, had on the Web site. But it's now clear that purely automatic recommendations don't always work, and can take millions of dollars in investment. Each vertical, each business type, requires certain alterations on how the engine should work. The Netflix recommendation algorithm seems magical, but would not necessarily work for other media. On the other hand, publishing has always had the immense luck of support from social recommendations. Your favorite librarian, your kindred soul when talking about books, the serendipitous discovery of a great book thanks to the subway passenger next to you... this has worked great until only a few years ago. But now publishers and authors (not readers) have a problem, with millions of books available on the web. How can we make them more visible? Our take: to merge technology with human curation. To create virtual bookshelves where all users can become digital librarians, matched with recommendation algorithms that *support* our edition team and our users in making the most of what other digital librarian and doing with their own bookshelves. This communion of tech and human touch is working for us even at this early stage, and has become the glue for all the things we are doing now.

3. Reader involvement. When bookshelves work, everything changes. And readers become so much more involved. They not only go to a reading service to read, but to interact with other  users, to work on their bookshelves, to have great conversations. But, the other way around, they don't just come to the service to check book covers and read synopses. They can read books. Full, high quality, engaging books. This creates a virtuous circle.

4. Publisher engagement. The future of content retailing also requires a closer relationship with publishers. We have found incredible, engaging publishers, agents and authors who may or may not be interested in our offering, but who listen and discuss and provide incredibly useful insights. But many times we have also found retailers and publishers fighting for their own benefits, period. This will not end well. Asymmetric relationships mean someone will be complaining for years. I've seen that since 2010. And I wouldn't like to see that happening again with subscription services and publishers. We need to work together and find *touch points* of common interest. For instance: data. Customer insight is a hot topic for publishers. And we can help so much there in terms of pure data but also on how to make the most of it.

This is how we see content retailing: High value services where books are the entrance to new worlds for readers, who become digital librarians and engage other readers, and where retailers and publishers find a common, symmetrical ground on which to work together.

If we don't do this, the shortsighted agreements signed today will become the complaints and gloomy looks of tomorrow. If we do, I truly see a bright future for digital retailing.

Main image - Shutterstock: gpointstudio