Joanna Penn: Virtual reality and the future of publishing

Joanna Penn: Virtual reality and the future of publishing

Editor's Note: The concept of marketing in virtual reality (VR) can get a lot of Silicon Valley types out of bed each morning. It holds a similar appeal for author Joanna Penn, who here imagines the deployment of VR for bookselling as clearly as if she could see it while wearing an Oculus headset. "You might think this sounds crazy, but the technology is already here and the first wave will be mainstream in the next year," she predicts. - Porter Anderson

Customers will always want books, in that they want entertainment, inspiration and education in some kind of packaged format, but how they shop is changing and how they experience the world is changing too.

Imagine walking along a street of bookstores, each one with an enticing window display of eye-catching new covers that appeal to readers of a certain genre. You walk inside one with the dark, brooding atmosphere of the crime/thriller lover and find yourself in a bookstore with shelves of books configured just for your tastes. You’re drawn to a cover, pick up the book and start to read. You turn the pages, feeling the quality paper, smelling that new book scent. You continue browsing and when you’re ready to purchase, you choose your format and the book is sent to you in the format you choose.

Then you take off your VR headset and carry on with your day.

The virtual reality bookstore

With a VR bookstore, or street of bookstores, you could have:

  • Infinite stock with a display that changes when the same customer re-enters, meaning they are exposed to more product
  • Algorithms tailored to present people with new books, or books related to what they have read before and might like next
  • Avatar bookstore owners and assistants who can talk about their recommendations - the same personal touch you get in independent bookstores
  • A global reach with niche bookstores so any independent could set up a curated store and have customers entering from anywhere, solving the problem of foot traffic and high costs of running a physical bookstore
  • Stores tailored to niches, e.g. Apple-style chrome and glass for tech geeks, candlelit rooms for gothic, flower filled boudoirs for romance readers. And of course, less clichéd environments too!
  • Libraries for reference based on the great libraries of the world in which people can find digitised versions of books that aren’t available for sale anymore. In my ARKANE novels, I have a portal that leads into the Bodleian Library, where my characters consult ancient texts in a VR Radcliffe Camera
  • Virtual author appearances at which people can hear authors speak in the niche bookstores – without the costs of actually getting the author there. Like a webinar but with the full immersion VR experience
  • A chance for the customer to browse the shelves, picking up books and reading them. They can feel the paper with haptic technology, and yes, they can even smell that new-book smell. They can then click to buy in whatever format they like – getting print-on-demand shipped immediately (via the drones, of course), or having an ebook or audiobook format sent to their device. Or maybe they'll choose the new VR format in which you’re immersed in the story, particularly popular in the romance stores

I see a Harry Potter style Diagon Alley where as a bibliophile, I can go and roam, discovering new and exciting books. Since I buy books (digitally) almost every day, I’d probably be in there a lot.

The financial model

The costs will involve buying and developing a VR domain. And the algorithms that recommend virtual products need to be designed. Yes, there is a technical challenge here. But just imagine the upside:

  • Fewer physical stores – and those that there are can be run as "experiences" and "destinations." as per Apple/Google. The jobs will be in curation and management of the online stock as opposed to shipping, opening boxes, stocking shelves. But there will be many more curated digital stores that appeal to different types of readers. As an author writing in the thriller niche, I would definitely want to curate my own store, recommending books that I enjoy and earning affiliate income. A kind of Goodreads meets Penguin Random House’s, but in the virtual reality space in which I can control the look and feel of my store. Many of us already do this kind of thing with lists of recommended books and affiliate links but this would be much cooler.
  • Lower costs and increased profits. Income from customers, either through some version of retail pricing decided with publishers or through an affiliate model. The opportunity for up-sell based on what the customer is interested in, as well as personalised recommendations. More books produced but using digital formats and print on demand instead of print runs meaning less wastage and pulping.
  • Global penetration into a market that is increasingly online. With both Google and Facebook invested in getting another billion people online, this won’t take long, and virtual browsing customers can come from anywhere.
  • And just imagine the data you will be able to capture. All those juicy details about browsing habits and what people buy. You could test covers, using different versions for gender or age group or nationality. You could test price points, placement and even titles. The possibilities here are incredibly exciting for data geeks.

Virtual reality is (almost) here

You might think this sounds crazy but the technology is already here and the first wave will be mainstream in the next year. Michelle Reis of writes in a Forbes "BrandVoice" marketer's piece that the VR market is expected to grow to $407.51 million and reach more than 25 million users by 2018, according to

An Agence France-Presse story carried by Yahoo reports that Facebook has Oculus Rift, Samsung has Gear VR, Microsoft has the HoloLens, and Apple and Google Project Cardboard also have developments in progress. Car companies are using VR for virtual test drives at car shows, the article says, and Sir Paul McCartney has launched a VR app for 360 degree concert footage plus immersive effects.

Gaming companies are taking it further, writes Laura Sydell at NPR's All Tech Considered, so players can use their hands in the game, a technological advancement in which the body becomes the controller in VR space. And one of the biggest investments may be in education, taking classroom work to the next level with virtual immersive learning, as described by Paul James at Road to VR.

But it goes further than tech because the virtual reality community has already been proven in Second Life, an online world now 12 years old. I have a friend who makes a full-time living designing virtual clothing for avatars on Second Life. She spends much of the year on cruises as the costs are incredibly low with digital products and she can work from anywhere. There are bookstores in Second Life and there are authors who run events and retreats there too. The ecosystem is incredibly rich … but it’s not immersive. It’s not VR and never went mainstream because it was too early.

But the creator of Second Life, Philip Rosedale, has now started High Fidelity, which is partly funded by Google Ventures, according to TechCrunch's Anthony Ha, and looks like it could be something like a Second Life world in VR. They have recently raised another $11 million in funding to build deployable virtual worlds, writes Kyle Russell at TechCrunch, to “quickly generate a virtual space to meet and interact with.” That sounds like it could turn into a virtual bookstore, or a virtual conference, an author group, a writer’s group and so much more.

Let’s look a few years into the future

We’re not competing against each other, we’re competing against gaming and on-demand film/TV as well as music. These industries are embracing VR and the immersive experience will take consumers even farther from books. We need to embrace this technology and invest in what the online retail environment will be in five years' time.

I’m super excited about the opportunity ahead and if you’re interested in VR for publishing and the future of books, I’d love to be part of a cross-industry group to discuss this further. Let’s design the FutureBook.

Main image - Shutterstock: Stefano Tinti