Publishing startups have the tech - what they need is the stories

Publishing startups have the tech - what they need is the stories

It’s remarkable to think it’s been over four months since myself and my co-founder Adam Lowe were on stage at the FutureBook 2017 Awards, picking up the coveted ‘BookTech Company of the Year’ gong for our mobile fiction startup unrd, and our first story, Last Seen Online.   

In all honesty, we never thought we were going to win. We’re complete imposters coming into the publishing world. Having both previously worked in advertising, the day was an interesting and revealing peek into a category that’s had (and still having) ups and downs - understanding its challenges, exploring what book people are excited about, and trying to figure out where we might fit in. Discussions, talks and presentations all helped to plug the gaps.

The theme of the day seemed to be ‘publishers can and must do more with digital' - whether through integrating it deeper into their business or simply realising that is where their audiences are spending most of their time. Competitor number one isn’t another book, it’s every other way a potential reader might pass their time. Increasingly that means crushing candy, swiping endlessly through Instagram or ending up in a YouTube black hole of videos. How does one compete in a world of constant distraction? It’s a journey every publisher is going on, and one that becomes increasingly more difficult as the years go on, especially as younger users spend even less time engaging with one medium as the habit of multi-tasking takes hold.

Since that day last December, we’ve been on an interesting journey and realisation of our own too. Happily, we’ve managed to raise an investment round to help to grow the business. But in the process it’s made us ask questions about what’s valuable about our product. Is it the technology? Is it the user base? Is it the engagement metrics, or is something else? What will get investors to sign a cheque and believe in us?

In reality, it turns out none of these things matter as much as you think they would. The number one question we were asked by investors was: How are you going to create great stories? What’s the content model? How do you create stories that people will tell their friends about? Now that you’ve got a format that works, what do you do with it?

The tech world has a ridiculously good level of understanding of the mechanics you need to create to make products sticky, to get users to convert, to extract data (hi Mark Z), and to transport users to a different world simply through lines of code. However, none of this is possible without a great story gluing it all together. Unlike any piece of tech, stories have an indefinite life. They're what gets stuck in a readers head, they're what you tell your friends about, and in increasingly crowded market, they're what makes  a product stand out from one to the next. Case in point: very little of our feedback for Last Seen Online is about the experience. It’s all about the story. I haven’t checked, but I imagine it’s the same for Netflix and Oculus Rift.

So, it turns out, in a world full of technology, the only thing that really matters is the stories you tell using that tech. And, luckily for many readers of this publication, they have story IP in bucket loads. There’s actually never been a more exciting time to be in the publishing and storytelling business than now.

Technologists are creating amazing experiences that they want users to experience, but they don’t necessarily have the stories to make a success of it. This opens up some interesting debates. How do publishers evolve to capture this opportunity? Do they create their own technology departments? Do they need their own augmented reality crack team? Or, do they team up with new formats and look for ways to deliver stories to new and existing users?

We’ve been exploring this discussion with several publishers, propelled forward by the exciting conversations we had with them during and after the FutureBook Awards. For the launch of our next product later this year, we’ll be teaming with some forward-thinking publishers and bringing users familiar stories in an unfamiliar format.

We’re confident that the future is bright for publishers. In a world of tech advancements, they still hold the most valuable tool: tried and tested stories that make people feel.