Byte the Book: What lessons can consumer publishing teach the book industry?

Last night, as the rain finally began to clear, we made our way to The Ivy to attend the evening’s Byte the Book event; ‘What can Consumer Publishing Teach the Book Industry?’. The evening unfolded into a lively discussion on the difference between consumer, magazine publishing and the more traditional book publishing industry. The panel was strong and the points raised and addressed were food for thought.Image

First up was Alex Watson (@Sifter) of Dennis Publishing who spoke about the subscription model and how he supports it. Alex’s company publish 19 magazines and subscriptions are evidently growing. People want to pay for a continual service and not for once off content and, most importantly, want to be able to access this information on multiple platforms.

The conversation then turned to the use of technology to understand users and the advantages to be gained within this arena. Toby Wright (@tobywright) led the examination of this and we delved into how the interests, habits and needs of the readership/subscribers can be traced through monitoring every button they click. Like following a treasure trail of read data, a profile can be formed and, consequently, catered to. Content can be tailored according to what the readership clearly wants and the power lies in the hands of those who monitor the websites and who have access to the records.

Can the power be taken back if consumer publishers and book publishers work together?

DRM – a class of controversial technologies that are used by those digital publishers/copyright holders/hardware manufacturers to control the use of digital content after sales – is, according to Matteo Berlucchi (@matteoberlucchi) of Northern and Shell, a symbol of the problems within the industry. DRM locks up innovation and is too easy to crack. Instead of trying to  physically stop piracy (which is nearly impossible), publishers instead need to consider what leads people to pirate content and address the issues that lie underneath. An example of something to consider, if individuals are pirating content, this can be because the price does not match the perceived value of the product and is too high. Therefore, rather than publishers putting DRM on their products, they could look at offering things at a lower price and encouraging people to then purchase the content.

Justine Southall (@Justinenow), Publishing Director of Marie Claire, discussed the issue of advertising and the potentially problematic existence (or lack thereof) of it in the book publishing world. Would it take enjoyment out of a classic novel to have a batch of adverts in its midst? Justine posed the question, “Why not monetise areas of the book and not part of the product?” Having reflected on this, could book publishers use this as another revenue stream, the way magazines do? Alex flagged the dangers of this in a traditional book publishing industry – the focus on advertising should not be to add revenue but more towards strategizing to help grow the business model, i.e.,  by gaining this extra revenue, what could the publishers then give back to their consumers?

This shift in the discussion toward the issue of branding led to some interesting points from the floor in which people argued that in book publishing, the brand is the author. It is safe to say that traditional publishing is challenged by brands and with the birth and growth of online/digital publications, there is a simultaneously growing need to have a brand that resonates with certain groups of people. Media brands used to be the container and now they are churning out content too. What is the solution? How do we marry both worlds?

Justine stepped in to answer this one. In her opinion, brands are crucial to magazines and the brand relationship that readers have with them allows that reach into other platforms. Understanding the brand is also crucial and since the web has taken over, brands are now becoming more fragmented, (eg. magazine editions catering towards teens as well as the original), but there is a need to stick to the core values that made them a brand. Under every umbrella brand are the franchises and they give people a voice and a platform from which to use it.

The overall message of the night was that the two industries can help each other. As we spilled back out into the night, Alex Watson’s closing words resonated; we need to simply embrace this change, embrace the big Californian companies who provide this opportunity to know what a publication’s culture is and who know how to monitor who reads that content every day.

Perhaps the time has come for a marrying of the industries. Book publishers need to learn how to work better with large technology and consumer driven companies such as Amazon and Apple, as consumer and magazine publishers have done. Rather than focussing on what control companies such as Amazon have taken away from them, they need to think about what they have given them, which is a chance to sell their products in a new way that can reach larger audiences than ever before.

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