Of Mills and Penguins

The Readmill-Penguin deal is being touted as all sorts of things - I was asked recently to comment on the possibility that it was the first blow in Random House-Penguin’s insurgency against Amazon. (And it would be an insurgency, which actually says a lot about where we stand.) I felt uncomfortable reading the Guardian piece, not because it’s not what I said - it is, if not absolutely verbatim - but because I came across unclearly.

I’m a fan of part of Readmill’s mission statement - the focused reading experience - because I dislike the notion that was floating around for a while that an ebook wasn’t complete without bits of video in the text and so on. My version of an “enhanced ebook” was and is a hub that allowed the reader to reach for the periphery as necessary - for an audiobook that was synchronised with where you were in the digital text and searchable by text entry, for example. I’m hugely in favour of better reading apps than we presently have, and more exciting technologies for reading while we’re at it. Kindle is dull. So is iBooks. They work. They could just be so much better.

I’m less sure about the core idea of making reading more social, but I could be persuaded - I share Baldur’s irritation at being unable to quote from a book I’m loving readily on social media, and that’s a core feature of Readmill. On the other hand I’m also, generally, horrible at being in a community, not just online but in life. I love to be in a group, but I’m an introvert - in the modern sense that I don’t easily draw energy from the experience but expend energy on it. Reading is a place where I recharge, and the idea of having my hearthspace further drawn into the public environment is not appealing. However, I may be in the minority there. Or perhaps I’m not, and we need to know more about the science of how the need to read fits into people’s behaviour before we go haring off down the wrong track.

The place where I get unhappy is that while this is a positive change, it’s also very much an incremental one in how the mainstream trade does business. For all the sense of possibility around the recent Futurebook conference - I couldn’t be there, but everyone I spoke to came away uplifted - I feel… bereft, I suppose… that the industry itself has been unwilling to reach for the stars. It’s not true that publishing doesn’t innovate. Publishers are innovating constantly, but subtly, internally, and on their own terms - or perhaps, as Tom Chalmers would have it, over-investing and under-delivering, and what is needed is a full-on skunkworks from which the conventional trade could produce new possibilities rather than tweak old ones. In any case, we haven’t seen any evidence of a disruptive change coming out of the traditional houses, and I think that’s dangerous in the longer term, both to their wellbeing as companies and to the trade at large. In fact, the stuff I see from Big 5 publishers is very much about mitigation and resilience in the face of the digital tidal wave. There’s no suggestion that anyone might try to leapfrog the digital giants’ development. To draw on a different but similar situation, many developing nations aren’t bothering to install landline phones as they modernise - they’re just going straight to mobile. It’s cheaper and easier, and it puts them straight into the technological game rather than dragging them through a faux 19th Century of telegraph wires. I think that without that kind of leap the industry is doomed to a forlorn game of catchup, forever adjusting its goals and means while the digital companies disappear over publishing’s planning horizon and come back with another thing that will make a small amount of money for publishing and a much larger amount for them, and further alienate the industry from its customers. I don’t think it’s vital to books that Amazon should be displaced from its majestic position at present - or at least constrained to make some concessions to how it presently does business - but I think it may be vital to the present leaders in the publishing world.

In which connection, I suppose my primary question about the Readmill deal is whether Penguin is getting access to the customer demographics, and whether, if they are, they’re going to be sufficiently forensic and far-reaching in their use of those data. That would be a striking shift, if not one that would immediately change everything for the reader. If they’re really proposing to begin an insurgency - and as you see I’m far from persuaded, these days, that it’s necessary from a purely self-interested perspective that they should - they need a rather more eye-catching headline. For me, that’s always going to be “buy once” - the idea that you buy a book in any format and get either a discount on the hardback if you bought the ebook, or the ebook free if you bought the hardback, etc. That kind of bundling, though, exposes all sorts of oddnesses in conventional accounting of books and ebooks and makes life tricky, so it could be something else. Rewards, say, or ebook lending - never sure about that one - or else even [actually, I’m not telling you that, as I might decide make it happen myself].

Changes that disrupt the business model by making it more perfectly centred on delivering reading are changes that the industry should not just embrace but seek out and above all imagine before anyone else does. Publishing cannot continue to await the benevolent indulgence of digital for ever. Sooner or later, we need to see publishing setting an agenda for digital to meet rather than the other way around.

So: congratulations to Readmill for a deal well-landed, to Penguin for embracing a new and interesting thing, albeit a little tentatively. But the cat and the pigeons are, as far as I can see, still resolutely on opposite sides of the glass. So now - as a cowboy movie might have it - come on: show us something amazing.