The book publishing industry is a great example of a traditional business that is evolving as a result of new technology. My reflections from a recently attended conference on the subject are below.
The program of the Toronto Book Summit 2014 promised an event that would amuse, engage and challenge both the author and the business person. When I attended this past Thursday, I was delighted. The conference was great. All of the sessions were very current. The information reflected what is going on this very moment (or at least last week) in the publishing industry. And there’s a lot going on.
I am going to highlight four sessions and then provide what I think the implications are for the authors and the publishing industry at the end. All of the conference speakers gave thoughtful, thought-provoking and absorbing presentations. The interpretation presented below is my own.1:
1. Evolving Business Models for the Publishing Industry (extracted from suggestions by Mike Skatzkin):
- The subscription model, like Scribd or Oyster, where users pay a fixed fee for as much content as they can consume.
- Combining book sales with provision of other items. Amazon does this, as do bookstores like Chapters/Indigo, with a coffee shop and gift-store like items in their bricks and mortal (or cement and plywood) stores.
- Publishers become more like literary agents. Mentioned examples were EReads, Rosetta and Diversion, that might look to accelerate the publishing process and provide comprehensive service to their authors, publishing back titles etc.
- Book pricing, both of the paper version and ebook, will remain under pressure, from each other and from indie publishers. It was acknowledged that price erosion does signal a decreased value for the content, which to me, is sad. The value of intellectual property still isn’t fully recognized.
- Celebrity imprints. Much to my surprise, this is already happening. Folks like Johnny Depp lend their reputation to attract certain authors and titles to a publisher.
- A less unified book industry, where various business models co-exist.
- Continuation of the used book market
2. Big (or small) Data and Marketing Strategies (inspired by Peter McCarthy’s talk)
If you are squeamish about the use of information that is culled about you from your use of the internet (with or without your knowledge), this talk might have sent you running for a dark cave and isolation from the rest of humanity. On the other hand, if you embrace the new normal in privacy (little to none) and believe it will deliver better, personalized information, products and everything else, then this talk would have delighted you.
We were treated to various examples of the predictive power of social media, such as Twitter. Academic models have achieved some success using tweets about movies to predict box office sales.
One theme of the day (also see #4 below) was the difference between surveying and observing people. Or, what we say isn’t necessarily what we do. From a marketing perspective, this means that social media has the potential to deliver added information not available from other sources.
Plenty of consumer data is readily available from Google, Twitter and Facebook. Combined with postal code (or equivalent) data, with comprehensive demographics2, it’s incredible what can be learned. Different forms of social media provide different information. Facebook is a good source for personal information. A google search history provides a behaviour profile, while Twitter supplies current information and location information.
Peter McCarthy showed us how readily available this information is, and how it could be used in something that resembled a stream of consciousness guided wander through the internet. Like many brilliant technological advances, he made the incredible look easy and in the end showed how this analysis could develop new marketing strategies. An example is arranging for an author signing/reading in an area where the author is relatively unknown but the demographics of the population are similar to the demographics of the author’s loyal followers.
3. The Use of Social Media in the Publishing Business (based on a talk by Evan Jones)
This is a challenging topic, since social media is so pervasive in all of our lives. We all have preconceived notions about social media. The presenter, Evan Jones, should be commended for delivering some sage messages about how social media can be used for business, and where business intersects with personal life.
This is my distillation of the presentation:
Even though corporations are legal people, they cannot form social networks the same way people can. Corporations are pressured to use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promote their brands and corporate image. However, likely the best approach for this type of activity is to have them act as ‘Broadcasters’ or providers of content, rather than use social media to form peer networks.
On the other hand, individual authors can promote their own brand, which is likely to be closely related to their own interests and personality. By creating their own social network, they build a community of followers who are likely to be interested in their writing.
All use of social media is not marketing. Marketing can be a distraction on social media.
4. Matching Readers with Content (based on the talk by Sara Critchfield of Upworthy, an organization that provides reader content)
This topic resonated with me. Under the pressure of the digital age, the publishing business must evolve. I think those that survive (the fittesr) will be those that use technology to help readers find the content they most enjoy, or to cut through virtual forests of material to find the trees of wisdom that they seek.
Sara Critchfield suggested that asking readers what they want to read and then looking at what they are reading often leads doesn’t have the same answer. Knowing how readers find what they want is key to getting publications in the hands of readers. The message I took away from the very edifying presentation was that we don’t have the analytics yet to model all of human behaviour. We are missing the emotional component. Thus the recommendation was to include the intuitive emotional information is creating marketing strategies which make use of the aforementioned demographic and social media data (#2 above). Also, testing, by looking at the number of ‘like’s, or equivalent, on social media, provides good approaches to identifying media that people want to see.3
There were other sessions I attended and folks I chatted to, and I learned something from each one.
So, what do I think the implications are for writers and the evolving publishing industry?
Traditional business theory (or maybe it’s economic) suggests that the broadening of the industry, including the rise of many smaller publishers, the introduction of new business models (or new incarnations of older ones, like subscriptions), and the revision of product themes (like selling of books paired with other items), is typical of a growth industry. Compared this to the consolidation and reduction in number of corporations in a mature to declining industry. Does it go without saying that its better to be in a growth phase than a mature phase? I think so, at least for business, as it suggests good stakeholder support, a lower risk of disappearance, and an increase in competition which leads to stronger business and happier customers.
I think industry evolution is a good thing for writers. A more robust industry means more of us can find markets for our work. More variety in publishers means more flexibility in finding a ‘fit’ with a publisher. There are some who fear that price erosion will make it impossible for writers to earn a living. I can see how this is logical, and frightening, but the publishing industry needs writers, so an evolved system must support writers.
Most importantly, I think evolution this is good for readers, which ultimately is what both publishing and writing is all about. We all strive to make our readers happy and I think a healthy, diverse industry will do that.
1I’m going to provide my reflections of what the speakers presented. The full program is here, along with links to the speaker’s bios. If you see yourself misinterpreted, please comment or send me a message.
2Try it. This is for the postal code of the area I grew up in, right there on a government of Canada website for all to see.
3This makes me think of Wattpad, a platform for writers to get active feedback from readers on their work.
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