As our industry becomes increasingly hybrid – ever more digital, yet still significantly paper-based – the necessity to innovate is a growing problem for publishers. With revenues squeezed by falling prices and decreasing margins, innovation becomes more vital than ever: if we are to survive, publishers need to find new methods of working, new types of product, and new ways of reaching our audiences.
And yet the reasons that make innovation vital also make it difficult. The falling revenues that compel us to reinvent our industry also make it harder to do so. Money and time are both at such a premium that little of either can be spared on experiments of doubtful return. The innovator’s mantra, borrowed from Beckett’s Worstward Ho and so often heard these days at industry conferences – “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – may barely be whispered in budget-holders’ hearing when new projects are up for approval.
A further difficulty can be found in the fact that few publishers are, by temperament, innovators. Periods of rapid change within our industry have been comparatively rare and brief, and an ability to implement – and occasionally refine – existing processes has historically more often proved a vital virtue than the ability to react sure-footedly with speed to changing circumstances. A smart publisher, therefore, is one who recognises this deficiency and seeks to supply this lack through collaboration with more agile partners.
It was with all these issues in mind that I read – and welcomed – the invitation from REACT to become involved with their Books and Print Sandbox project. REACT (Research & Enterprise in Arts & Creative Technology) is itself a collaboration between the universities of the West of England, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter, and Watershed, the Bristol-based venue and cultural producer. One of four Knowledge Exchange Hubs for the Creative Economy funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), REACT encourages collaboration between arts and humanities researchers and creative companies. It provides funding and support to foster the exchange of knowledge, cultural experimentation and the development of innovative digital technologies in the creative sectors.
The Books and Print Sandbox would bring together academic researchers and innovators in the creative industries to explore Books and Print as historical, contemporary or future phenomena. Six projects would be funded to the tune of £50,000 and given expert support over a three-month period to turn their concepts into prototypes; perhaps even more importantly, they would also have support from a consultant to develop business plans for the commercial exploitation of those prototypes.
I was delighted to accept the invitation to act as one of a panel of judges and mentors on this Sandbox, which offered participants the opportunity to develop projects focused upon commercial possibilities, freed – temporarily, at least – from the immediate day-to-day commercial constraints of either a start-up or an established business. These would be projects that brought together some of the most interesting thinkers from academia and industry, to work on products that could open up new possibilities for publishing, yet which might never have found funding from that industry itself.
Toward the end of October last year, I received a tranche of project proposals to review. The standard was impressively high, and the initial plan to approve six projects was soon revised to allow eight to receive funding and support towards the development of business plans and prototypes. Each of the eight chosen projects brought together academics and practitioners with impressive track records to explore concepts that were both fascinating in themselves and showed encouraging potential for future commercial development.
The full list of projects can be found on the Sandbox website. Particular highlights for me include a collaboration which brings together a number of names that will be familiar to readers of this blog: author and FutureBook blogger Nick Harkaway, academic and novelist Tom Abba (whose experiment in digital storytelling was covered on this site), and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. ‘these pages fall like ash’ is a ‘locative story’ that explores how a narrative written for a digital platform might make use of location – specifically the city – as an element within the story.
A second locative project, ‘Writer on the Train’, brings together Dave Addey of Agant (developers of the BAFTA-nominated Malcolm Tucker app), author James Attlee (currently ‘writer on the train’ for First Great Western), and architectural historian Fabrizio Nevola to create a form of travel writing that takes advantage of the possibilities offered by mobile apps to respond in real time to users’ journeys with audio, video and textual content.
Another project promises to consider how timelines in digital products might move beyond their paper precursors to become more dynamic, malleable, and compelling. Working with three classic literary texts by Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Hugo, ‘The Next Time(line)’ is a collaboration between Bradley Stephens, lecturer in modern languages at the University of Bristol, and historian and cross-media author Alex Butterworth’s Amblr.
The other five projects – The Secret Lives of Books, Digitising the Dollar Princess, Jekyll 2.0, Book Kernel, and ‘Little j’ Hyper Local News – each have their own fascinations and offer tantalising possibilities for commercial exploitation within the industry. I hope to write in more detail about them here at a later date, but you can find out more now by reading the blogs that participants in all eight projects are running to document their experiences. As the projects move into their second month of development, excitement is building as the promised prototypes come closer to delivery…