Futurebook Innovation Workshop: Looking Beyond the Ebook

The phrase can’t see the wood for the trees is most often used in a reflective situation framed by the word ‘I didn’t, or ‘we couldn’t’, rather than ‘we can’t’ or ‘we don’t’, because it’s generally only after we mess something up beyond repair that we realise we were focussing on a small and perhaps unimportant element of a larger whole the entire time.

It’s difficult in publishing, perhaps, to identify what constitutes the wood and what are the trees. Bookshops, authors, readers: all these avenues vie for the top tier of our attention, and at different points someone is always willing to tell us which of them are the most important to our business and how. But when I think back to why I got into publishing in the first place, the thing that remains are the stories.

This was the focus of the Futurebook Innovation Workshop, in association with The Literary Platform, last week, where a range of speakers discussed shifts in their businesses, from the Black Crown project announced by Random House last week to Bobette Buster from Pixar and 20th Century Fox, who discussed the fundamental basis of all storytelling and why we connect with media in the first place. Through all these ran a thread – the consumer has changed, and we need to change with them.

It is nearly impossible to look past the ebook as the defining innovation of our business at the moment to guess what else technology may throw our way, because it has changed so many things. But as Nick Perrett of HarperCollins said, it is in fact a pretty poor ‘innovation’. Essentially, readers are still doing what we always did with those stories – consuming them in a linear fashion at a specific unit cost. The nature of someone’s ownership of that media has changed slightly, but the way people interact with ebooks is essentially the same as books (not so many people are doing the social reading thing, are they?).

When I say look ‘beyond’, I don’t mean to what future innovations will change the way we tell stories, I mean look at what has necessitated the rise of the ebook, and how this is likely to continue to impact our business in myriad ways.

The ebook itself is a product of a far greater seismic shift in the way we consume everything, from our media to our social interactions to our education. As humans, we take in information and project it out in a different way. Julian MacCrea of Portal Entertainment made the point that what makes readers buy stories has changed significantly, from a closed system where the reputation of the creator (the brand) was the most important thing, to an open system where the experience of reading becomes immersive in order to create social value for that person. Basically everything people do online is for social value, to be seen to be doing it by others, and this fundamental difference in the way our lives are structured impacts pretty much everything.

Although some strong book brands remain (arguably quite a few, in fact) we are seeing more and more that these brands can’t be sold in the way they used to be, whether it is an author or publishing house. The feedback loop, where the reader is asked for their interaction with content in order to gain something in return, is increasingly important, and should be part of not only how we sell but how we construct our stories. Black Crown is an excellent example of this.

What does this mean for the publishing business? It means the stories will remain, taking new forms digitally and physically. It means our minds need to stay burst apart and we need to continue to share with other industries (the games industry is a great template for our future). It means what constitutes a successful publication will probably continue to change form forever, and trying to force a debut author to replicate the success of an author in the same genre from 10 years ago will be ultimately disappointing, possibly destructive, and a waste of time, when what we need to be doing with them is playing on their strengths and our strengths and the reality of the market.

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