Digital Minds: Industry must try more, fail better

Digital Minds: Industry must try more, fail better

Books as sharks, publishers as dinosaurs, digital as climate change and dandelions, were just some of the descriptions and metaphors used at Digital Minds to characterise the state of play in the book business at the annual pre-London Book Fair digital conference.

Echoing comments made in The Bookseller this week by Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page, Sara Lloyd, conference chair and digital director at Pan Macmillan, said that current talk in the industry of e-book sales growth slowing, and bookshops seeing a resurgence in sales of print titles, did not indicate that the world had stopped changing. Lloyd said: "There is no such thing as normal, we are not getting back to normal, other types of change are going to replace the kinds of change we've gotten used to."

Lloyd introduced the first extended metaphor of the day, likening digital transformation to climate change, which like digital had been redefined as our understanding of what it means becomes clearer. "Digital weirded our world, and for a while we didn't recognise the seasons as those seasons changed."

But Lloyd was positive about the change. She said "digital threatened the survival of some" and changed the "form of others" as they adapted, citing self-published writers as just one example of a group that has reshaped as a result of digital. Exploring the analogy further, Lloyd said as with climate change there were now fewer deniers, but unlike global warming, this was a change that could be embraced. She stressed three Rs, 'recognition' of the change, 'respect' for each other and 'recycling' of skills and resources in new ways as the world evolved.

Author Neil Gaiman, in a wide-ranging and complex talk, said people in the book business needed to become more like 'dandelions', experimenting by spreading numerous seeds around and accepting that most would fail. "The model for tomorrow is try everything, make mistakes, fail, fail better."

Gaiman took his analogies back to prehistoric days saying that print books could be like sharks, an animal that evolution has never bettered, but that there were still some dinosaurs in the business, for whom digital could be the end. "Books (some) may be sharks", but "home libraries" and "encyclopedias" were not, with both displaced by the web and portable reading devices. He said he recognised that the e-book was here when he daughter started reading off an early version of the Kindle on a trip to Hungary where printed English-language books were not available. For older readers he said the ability to increase font-size was the "killer app".

Gaiman said we were moving from a world where gatekeepers were necessary, to one where guides were essential. Gaiman said he would "sign anything", and said discoverability was best achieved not through a commercial transaction. "We don't normally find the people we love most by buying them, we discover them." Gaiman said he never wanted to go "to war" over this, instead he promoted "word of mouth".

Gaiman also advised the sector to define the future for itself. "The truth is that whatever we make up is likely to be right  . . . we are on the frontier, we can make up the rules, or break rules that no one has thought of yet."

Topping the analogy bun-fest was Faber's sales and marketing director Will Atkinson, who took to the sport pitch for this explanation of where the industry was after the first quarter of 2013. Like Lloyd, he highlighted the sense in the trade that change was slowing down. "This is a mere respite, nothing is sacred, everything is changing. We are in the changing room at half-time, having an orange, we'll soon be back for the second half."

In a follow-up session, Richard Nash said the industry needed to "fail fast and fail cheap".