Turning the tanker around: navigating publishing's future

Turning the tanker around: navigating publishing's future

Is publishing a vast, slow-moving tanker that will take some time to turn around? Or rather a fishing boat seeking out “blue oceans” where the fish have not yet all been caught? These and other nautical analogies arose at a discussion last week that took place as part of the Future of Publishing programme, a series of events that will climax in October with a conference held, appropriately enough, at the south coast town of Bournemouth.

Conferences on publishing's future seem as popular as Kindles these days, and most appear to share common aims: to spark debate and offer opportunities to showcase pioneering new work. And though the Future of Publishing programme professes these aims too, where it looks to offer something different is in its focus on facilitating actual innovation. Its conference will be the culmination of a series of events that have explored practical solutions to the challenges facing the industry. May's BookHack Day at the FreeWord Centre in Farringdon (described here by participant Tom Abba) brought geeks and publishers together to demonstrate through collaboration on actual projects how the combination of open minds and rapid development methods can create innovative new products. A similarly hands-on approach should be taken to another of the programme's aims: exploring how the industry might successfully create new business streams. 

Last week's discussion in an airy Soho loft brought together attendees from across the industry: publishers from the trade & academic sectors, start-ups offering access to technologies & new routes to market, agencies promoting literacy & innovation, academics and the media. And though booksellers were noticeable by their absence, those present included a number of authors and a great many readers.

Unsurprisingly, readers provided one of the main topics of discussion. Though reading habits are definitely undergoing changes, it's harder than ever to fathom quite where those changes might be leading, as they comprise a number of seemingly contradictory trends. Despite the widespread take-off of ebook readers and tablet devices, for instance, the amount of time spent on screen-based reading, it was claimed, is actually decreasing.

Some ascribed this to device convergence and the greater choice available to today's consumers. Though the rise of the smartphone and tablet has made it easier for readers to continue their reading in the bus queue or the doctor's waiting room, it has also offered them a range of other media to compete for their time, from games and the web to films and television programmes; even the Kindle offers magazines and syndicated blogs as an alternative to ebooks.

Another possible cause for this decline might be that readers are finding it increasingly difficult to find time for reading. On this assumption, the future for short form publishers like Ether Books and Shortfire Press might, like that for Kindle Singles, be very promising indeed. Meanwhile, the desire to counteract this shortage of time through multi-tasking – to read while getting ready in the mornings, or on the drive to work – may be responsible for a rise in popularity for podcasts and audiobooks.

All, unsurprisingly, agreed that publishers must respond to changing markets by producing new forms of content that matched readers' diverging needs. The rise of electronic formats, capable of providing real-time data on readers' usage patterns, ought in theory to make it easier than ever to know precisely what readers are doing, and therefore what they want. And yet, the unwillingness of Amazon, Apple, and Google to share any meaningful data with publishers – unlike, say, Kobo – means it is as difficult as ever to judge what's working, and what might work in future. With publishers' efforts to defend their own interests already under suspicion of collusion, any attempt to recalibrate the balance of power through presenting a united front will be difficult.

Domination by outside interests was not the only threat identified, however. The internal processes that have worked well for print are, it was suggested, holding publishers back when it comes to digital. With financial systems that can't cope with new business models, and marketing departments struggling to quantify the return on investment value of a Facebook 'like' or Twitter follower, the industry urgently needs to adapt its processes to the new reality, to be able to respond to readers' needs.

Alongside this concern about processes came a recognition that the industry is equally in need of new digital skills. With publishing still viewed by most who work in it as a lifelong vocation, and with vacancies decreasing, opportunities to bring new blood into the industry are small. Publishers therefore need not only to collaborate with companies who can provide the necessary skills, but also to develop the skill sets of those already working in the industry. Such skills will be required across the board: authors are increasingly expected to develop their own fan base through social media before signing a contract, while commissioning editors need to consider the digital potential for any new title.

As the discussion drew to a close, conversation returned to the possibilities for collaboration within the industry. Publishing is in a state of flux, with few viable digital formats so far established, aside from the plain 'vanilla' ebook. In such a volatile environment, a willingness to experiment is vital but remains expensive, requiring an enlightened and suitably long-term attitude to gaining a return on investment – an attitude that is far from universal! Any initiative that cuts the cost of innovation, like the Technology Strategy Board's IC Tomorrow, which brings together content providers, developers and beta testers to provide a low-cost test bed for experimentation, is therefore to be welcomed. Still more, however, might be achieved by erstwhile competitors working together, sharing the costs of innovation, and striving to grow the market overall (seeking the “blue oceans” mentioned earlier), in the hope that their own revenues will increase accordingly.

To find out more about the Future of Publishing programme, click here.