When innovating in publishing, we must always ask why

When innovating in publishing, we must always ask why

Innovation in publishing - at least of the core product, the book - has been slow, minimal and incremental. Yet at every turning point it has been met with sometimes hysterical, often reactionary, zeal.

The introduction of the printing press, the paperback revolution and latterly the introduction of the e-book are three key changes we’ve witnessed over the last several centuries, and none have done an awful lot in reality to change the basics of what we understand to be a book.


Perhaps because innovation so often arises from solving a consumer pain point.  And yet on the surface at least, there hasn’t appeared to be much of a consumer pain point to fix. 

Whilst in reality the changes have been far from revolutionary, they have been greeted as controversial due to the sacred status of books. And I think the issue with the gravitas that has been attributed to them, and the rabbit holes that these changes have sometimes sent us all down, is that they have provided a terrible distraction from the real disruptive change that has been happening under our noses.

That is, the enormous drain on people’s attention driven by much more extreme and impactful innovation in other sectors. 

Disruptive innovators like digital TV, and other new content and social media platforms are providing fantastically designed, high quality, consumer-insight-driven, entertaining distraction to audiences that far outweigh our own - with content that frankly is often much less hard work to digest.

This provides the central reason that publishers should be more than ever focused on innovation. We must innovate our route to consumers’ hearts, minds and purses. We must remember that we don’t have the right to relevancy, only the responsibility to prove it. 

At last month’s Futurebook I asked the question, ‘Why should the consumer care about our books, let alone us?’ And it is by asking this question non flippantly, and genuinely seeking the answers to it, that innovation will flourish.

There are three key areas which I believe we could all work harder to innovate: our networks, our working practices and our engagement with the consumer.

It is only by forging new and sometimes tangential partnerships, as well as opening our doors to truly diverse new readers, writers and publishing professionals, that we will find and develop exciting new content, and energise routes to market. It is only through disrupting our own working practices, challenging ourselves and breaking a few eggs to try new approaches that we will prevent ourselves from being blinded by our own habits. And it is only through consistently coming back to audience needs, desires, behaviours and preferences that we will truly deliver content that excites and inspires, enabling easy discovery and sharing.

But real innovation is hard. Much of what we see in publishing is more 'innovation theatre' than innovation that genuinely answers a consumer need or delivers on business goals.

So how can we be better at it?

First of all, remember that ideas are cheap! Ideas are never good on their own. Implement a simple process to get people in your business thinking about the ‘Why?’ before they think about the ‘What?’. At Pan Mac we’ve successfully used a ‘lean canvas’ approach to provide a streamlined framework for developing ideas and stress testing them against the market. Using the lean canvas approach we quickly developed our idea for our partnership with The Pigeonhole to create an exclusive online book club to build super-fan engagement and buzz for Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire. From the project we grew our Follett fan database by 30% and are engaging with these super fans as his ambassadors. 

Second, think small. What is the simple version of your idea that you can pilot quickly and effectively? Alternatively, could you test this idea by working with a partner in the first instance, rather than leaping straight in on your own? Be prepared to develop your ideas incrementally, testing and pivoting as you go. We do this a lot with our organic social and digital ad campaigns, testing new ideas and content constantly until we deliver the right content, in the right place, at the right time.

Third, never apply technology for technology’s sake. Don’t think that just because a technology makes something possible, it should be done. Always work back from the consumer need. When looking for ways to gather consumer data through events, we thought about 100 ideas involving tablets, but finally agreed on an idea which solved a consumer need whilst delivering us the insight we craved. We delivered cups of takeaway coffee to fans queuing for their books to be signed -- Pan Mac branded, of course, and featuring two or three quick survey questions for them to fill in and return to us once they’d finished their drink. More recently, for Joe Wicks’ The Fat Loss Plan, we're micro-geotargeting mobile advertising to people who have been in one of hundreds of gym locations, delivering them a specific Perfect Post-Workout Meal creative: using new technology to deliver a consumer benefit first, and a pitch for our book, second.

Fourth, remember, innovation might be disrupting the way you work as well as what you are working on. At Pan Mac we’ve recently brought people from across different teams to work together in new ways, on different timescales and with new levels of focus and energy. Our success with The Girlfriend across all formats was partly down to this new way of working.

Fifth, never forget to ask, ‘WHY?’ Why should anyone care? With the myriad of innovative new content available to people out there be it through Netflix, Buzzfeed, UniLad or SnapChat… if I wasn’t in publishing, would I really care? Really, now?