The year is 2014. A bearded man with strange forearm tattoos materialises in your boardroom, claiming to come from the future. How he got there isn't clear, although he's riding what looks like the bastard child of a single gear 'fixie' road bike and a mainframe computer. He wears jeggings. He tells you that in 2017 the sky is falling and that sales of physical books have overtaken those of ebooks. You tell him to bugger off back to Shoreditch and whatever he's been smoking, then you return to your brainstorm session and your bold plans for a Google Glass-inspired, augmented reality reader experience.
Fast forward to March 2017 and lo and behold, you find that your time traveler friend was telling the truth. Sales of books (touchy feely books) have increased by 4% year on year. eBooks have gone south by the same margin.
This is not the future we expected. What gives?
Well, firstly, I hope you weren't betting on AR back then. For book publishers there's often strong value in 'last mover advantage.' Those who hid their heads in the sand whilst others were shelling cash on disruptive new reading apps are now a) laughing and b) perhaps none the wiser.
Secondly, Squiz's latest annual State of Marketing Technology report tells us that the media and publishing industry is the second biggest investor in marketing technology (after financial services) and is overwhelmingly the heaviest day-to-day user of the stuff. I hope you're not firing blanks.
I am not a time traveller and I do not wear jeggings, but I can try to explain why we got to a place where paperbacks are fighting back (and winning) and what we need to focus on if we're going to get it right by 2020.
How did the paperback fight back?
This is a proper Sherlockian three pipe puzzle that could use a broad perspective.
Between March 2014 and March 2017, Facebook's market cap grew by $232bn to $407bn (a 75% rise). Similarly, Apple's grew by $272bn to $745bn (a 173% rise). Both are predominantly in the business of keeping people glued to small pocket-sized devices. Over the same period, Netflix grew by 144% to $62.8bn - a far smaller number, but Netflix is a different beast.
Aside from being great models of tech disruption, why is the growth of these companies interesting? It's because they all compete in the attention economy - alongside book publishers.
Facebook and Apple have changed the way we interact with our content - news feeds and touch screens are now the go. Netflix's emergence, on the other hand, demonstrates something different.
Whilst we're all struggling with stiff necks and bad postures as a result of our nose-down addiction to thumb swiping and notification pings, we still like to consume certain content at certain times of the day in time honoured, kick-back fashion. (I'm thinking here of the amount of pizza I consumed on a ten-day couch marathon of House of Cards.) Meanwhile, the time we spend on planes, trains and automobiles is rising. The point being, whilst we're getting digitally quicker, some aspects of life remain the same: we spend large, fixed chunks of our days on our backsides in search of entertainment - mornings and evenings especially. Our 'entertainment slots' aren't changing.
The other thing the rise of Netflix suggests is that what people want has less to do with the device or the format, but more to do with the accessibility of content itself. Research done last year shows that Netflix is still largely watched via the good old tele box.
This confirms three things:
i) The best way to be entertained is in an environment without distractions - in the sense that it's much better to watch Kevin Spacey outmaneuver the American political establishment on the biggest possible screen, without a dozen social media status updates pinging in from the sidelines
ii) When it comes to competition for attention during prime 'entertainment slots,' a service like Netflix is a publisher's real competitor - not Facebook, Instagram, or any other web-based network that doesn't deal in high value, long-form content
iii) Conversely (and who'd have thunk it?) because of the above, the paperback might just be an ideal technological device for storytelling. (Picture the re-launch ad campaign: "Introducing iBook... Lightweight. Portable. Durable. Immersive. Distraction-free. Cost effective and sharable..." And, if a paperback doesn't do it, then reading the same thing on a phone with notifications turned off will also do the job.)
This, I feel, explains why sales of books are growing. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, as they say: there seems to be no real need to re-imagine the artefact beyond the text, because the demand for the product is still there.
But standing still won't do because there are many, many different services competing for that 'entertainment slot' aside from Netflix. Amazon Prime Video. Wattpad. Wattpad's new chat-style story service, Tap.
So how should publishers innovate and thrive?
What a digital-first entertainment network can teach us
All of the competitors mentioned above are digital-first organisations, born on the web. They've been designed from the ground up to exploit inefficiencies in the production, distribution and consumption of entertainment content. Many of them have deep R&D pockets and all of them are relentless in their pursuit of growth. They are not built like you. But that doesn't stop you from using some of their tricks. (These are just some of the learnings we apply in our work with large international publishers like Hachette, Elsevier and LexisNexis.)
Let's stay with Netflix. It does two things incredibly well to make it a go-to destination: it is data-driven and discovery-driven.
i) Data-Driven distribution
Data is Netflix's lifeblood. It knows a lot about me. It also knows a lot about my friends and connections and everybody else who uses its service. Consequently, it's pretty good at knowing what I want. It's also good at using this data to make creative decisions about what it does and doesn't produce itself and what it buys in from third parties.
It doesn't spend a great deal of time 're-imagining' the format of films and TV programmes. It does spend a lot of time figuring out how to help its audience maximise the value of their 'entertainment slots.' Netflix accumulates consumer data at every possible point to help it plan and deliver the right content, at the right time to whatever device its users choose to watch it on (which, as mentioned, tends to be a large TV).
Tip #1 then is to invest in technology that enables the acquisition of customer information in such a way that it can be matched with the product-level data that you have in your inventory, so that you can recommend the next great book more easily.
On one hand, I'm optimistic that publishers can do this because, unlike many other industries, the book business is built on well-structured data which is designed for syndication to a variety of online and offline shop fronts. On the other hand, there is a lot of work to do to connect this data to consumers in meaningful ways because the business suffers from an acute lack of consumer contact. The customer relationship and the opportunities for data capture lie with Amazon and co.
To this end, I recommend that every one of your technology investments and every marketing activity you do is geared towards data acquisition. Once this is in place, and once you have a sensible stock of consumer information, then you can plan your distribution more effectively. Think how much you could improve your digital advertising and promotions spend: it could be faster, leaner, and involve much less guesswork. As such, marketing success can lie in more progressive usage of CRM, analytics and marketing automation tools which allow for the creation and re-use of data, rather than (for example) creative and time-intensive Facebook campaigns that don't.
ii) Discovery-Driven Marketing
The other thing that Netflix is good at is connecting me to great content, regardless of who created it or where it was originally from. As well an enjoying Netflix Originals like House of Cards, I'm also a sucker for most things from the BBC archive. Yes, I'm fairly sure that I could watch Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip on BBC iPlayer, but Netflix serves it up just as easily, with its uncanny knack of suggesting I watch it.
Netflix does great 'discovery.' It removes a lot of the friction from how I plan my TV viewing: I don't need to spend much time hopping from one place to the next figuring out what to watch with my pizza. Netflix is something like a 'universal search' tool for the world's film and TV - and if it doesn't have what I'm looking for then it'll give me a next best bet on what it thinks I might like.
Finding stuff more easily, helping me connect more easily to my next read, is a simple point - but the underlying requirement for traditional publishers is complex.
How much time do you spend marketing your back catalogue? (Netflix's business is based almost entirely on back catalogue content, by the way. New isn't always best.) For those of you that do make that investment, how much of this is done across different genres and imprints? And if you wanted to do more of it, how connected are your teams, your marketing plans, and your processes? How much of your inventory potential is locked up in your organisational silos?
That's a lot to chew on. Hence, tip #2 is to focus your efforts on decoupling your people, data, plans and campaigns from specific authors and imprints so that you can find ways to enhance the book 'discovery' process - and connect readers to the broadest possible range of books.
Technology can be a great enabler here, given the right data to work with. If your content is organised and published in an agnostic way (agnostic to imprint, agnostic to marketing channel) then it becomes a lot easier to abstract it and re-compile it in new, more compelling discovery environments than a dusty old web page hidden in the depths of your web site. (Or, somebody else's site.)
Your stock of content (books, covers, interviews, videos, Q&As, etc) can then be syndicated more easily to connect with readers in specialist community apps like Litsy, Goodreads, Bookbub and other emerging, digital-first services. It can also be deployed across alternative communications platforms like Facebook Messenger. (BookBot, anybody?)
In summary, the rest of the internet may turn out to be your friend if you're able to re-focus your marketing efforts. You have what the web needs - an evergreen entertainment product. Your job is to turn as many of your processes into data-driven processes, and then use this intelligence to help your readers to discover what they are looking for.