The biggest challenge to innovation in publishing is not tradition but mindset.
Whenever an innovation project I was working on hit the buffers, I’d blame legacy systems and ways of working for holding me back. I wanted to start from scratch. Inspired by top-secret radical innovation, I would fantasise about setting up an independent ‘skunkworks’ unit with freedom to experiment and disrupt. I was wrong. All publishers can innovate—whether they are hundreds of years old or just starting out. Here’s some examples from across the sector, starting with the dream of a blank page.
When Asi Sharabi (pictured above) and his co-founders first had an idea to create a book, they asked: “What happens when you publish a book in the same way you build an internet startup?” They created Lost My Name, and built Wonderbly, the award-winning personal publishing startup that combines storytelling, engineering, digital and print.
The team had no knowledge of publishing, but with backgrounds in the creative and digital sectors, they had lots of experience building products and services using startup principles. That formed the foundation for the first book and business.
“Lean Startup is part of our DNA,” says Sharabi. “At the heart of it are two closely related concepts, both quite different from the traditional publishing model. First, being very close to our customers and their needs. And second, aiming to validate a concept—be that a new book or a feature on the website - as fast and as cheaply as possible. This means a very strong test and learn mindset and culture and continuously looking for ways to evolve our methodologies and processes.”
While the principles Sharabi talks about are different from traditional publishing, they are possible to implement in a traditional publishing setting—if you have the right mindset.
For example, we use the term ‘legacy publisher’—while it might seem pejorative, it’s a pretty accurate description of the systems in place across the sector today; ways of working that were established over tens, if not hundreds, of years.
Take the editorial production schedule. For many publishers, it can take up to two years for books to be edited, typeset, proof read, printed and made into e-books. Each of these tasks takes place sequentially, with dependencies between them, so that one cannot be started until the previous one has been completed. As such, it’s similar to ‘waterfall’ software development, which was disrupted by agile and Lean Startup approaches.
Pan Macmillan recently celebrated 176 years in publishing. While it is rightly proud of its traditions, it has taken huge strides to implement innovation and was the first publisher to go completely mobile-responsive. Lee Dibble, who heads up the content team, describes Pan Macmillan as “a great place for ideas”. That attitude led new projects.
In 2016, the digital team got excited about the potential to spin out simple chatbots on Facebook that would recommend books to their audience. Technological advances meant it was relatively easy to create a bot that pulled in books data via an API. Unfortunately, that’s where the project ground to a halt—the historical data wasn’t good enough to be useable. The technology was there but legacy was holding them back from innovating. While it might have taken a few days to create the front-end bot, it would take two whole years to structure the data for the back end.
That’s a tough outcome for what was meant to be a speedy innovation project. Many of us would give up. The chatbot experiment might have uncovered an uncomfortable reality about the systems, but having an innovation mindset got the digital team through it.
Dibble found that digital transformation isn’t about technology but a way of working. They had to do the work, restructure the data and create a new system—and keep staff informed throughout. Now that’s been done, they have a foundation for innovation that provides the opportunity for more experimentation, such as a recent project with Amazon Alexa. And it could even be said that being a legacy publisher has some advantages—when you take the perspective of 176 years, 24 months to fix data is no time at all!
Sharabi’s talks about the same thing - innovation is about evolving methodologies and processes, and by having a mindset focussed on growth, it means we can rise to the challenge. While publishing systems might be established, our culture can change. That is why the Lean Startup principle of ‘Build - Measure - Learn’ is so important and something we can all apply.
Now, Wonderbly is no longer the new kid on the block—with a growing backlist and ten books published every year, it keeps evolving in the same way Pan Macmillan does. Both have a fast cycle of innovation that uses customer feedback to quickly test, iterate and improve products. It’s an approach explained by Shib Hussein, co-founder of unrd, of how customer feedback drives product development for his mobile immersive-fiction startup.
“We learned that we were spending way too much time, effort and gloss on creating really awesome intro videos for stories. Our data and user groups were telling us that they don’t care about the intro video, with some skipping it!”
Taking a ‘Build - Measure - Learn’ approach meant they could save significant effort by making shorter videos, reducing time and money, and increasing customer engagement and retention. By using customer feedback, unrd understands what stories people care about. As a business that means they know what to double down on and what to discard as they work to deliver better stories to their readers.
For me, that’s what innovation in publishing is all about: having a growth mindset that learns from experience and from customers so we can tell better stories - and make better books, products and services. To survive as industry, we should be proud of our legacy but open to change and innovation—whether our companies are hundreds of years old, or just starting out today.