Unwin Trust Fellowship Report Overview

Download the full report PDF here, or you can get it as an ebook in EPUB or Kindle format.

I don’t think many publishers are sitting there saying ‘What are our digital experiments, how are we measuring them let’s see how they’re working.’ I’d like to pretend I was structuring it that way but effectively I’m going ‘What can we do with this book. What are we doing that’s interesting? Let’s have a go and see what works.’[1]

The risk of undertaking a long-term research project in an area like digital publishing is that the goalposts are constantly shifting. When I first put together my proposal for the Unwin Trust Fellowship in early 2011, the Australian publishing industry was a significantly different place to what it is now. Most publishers were lucky to have around 2–3% of sales in digital, and there were still a few Australian publishers who weren’t selling ebooks at all. Amazon’s Kindle was available to Australians, but only by ordering internationally. The sight of an e-reader on public transport was a novelty. Nobody had heard of the Kindle Fire. REDgroup retail had only just gone into voluntary administration, and it was unclear then precisely what the fallout from the loss of almost a quarter of Australia’s book retail presence would be.

Although it’s hard to come by hard data about ebook sales in Australia, as I write this, anecdotally, every publisher I’ve spoken to saw exponential growth over the Christmas period. Ebooks went from being an experiment to worth millions of dollars in just a couple of years. There are multiple variations of the Kindle available in stores in Australia, and most publishers appear to be working with most major ebook channels to sell their books.

Internationally, the story is very different too. When I left for London I was told that US publishers were still light years ahead of the rest of the world, and that anything I learned from the UK would still be at least 18 months behind the true frontier in digital. But over Christmas, UK digital sales grew by almost 500%[2] and many US publishers reported a plateau in digital sales for the first time since 2007[3], causing many analysts to speculate that the UK industry is catching up to the US, at least in terms of market penetration.

The original proposal was to undertake a series of case studies of experiments in the digital space in order to have a close understanding of their success or failure and hopefully to draw some conclusions from these. As such, the project was structured around close working relationships with a number of key players in the UK publishing industry. I spent two weeks each working with Pan Macmillan’s digital team on the launch of their digital backlist imprint Bello; at HarperCollins with The Friday Project team on Authonomy and its new digital-only list and at Faber & Faber on their drama online project (in collaboration with Bloomsbury). In between placements I recorded many interviews with key players in the industry and visited the Frankfurt trade fair to attend the Tools of Change conference. All of my experiences were enormously helpful for both this report and my general understanding of the state of digital publishing in the UK and to a lesser extent in the US. As I conducted the interviews and compiled this report it became clear that there was significant overlap in certain key areas of experimentation within (and outside of) publishing houses in London. As such, the core of this report focuses on these key areas, and goes into specific case studies where the information gathered justifies it.

I’ve identified these key areas as pricing, interactivity and multimedia, partnerships, platforms and workflow. Within these areas of experimentation I’ve explored a number of case studies, including children’s publisher and interactive multimedia specialist Nosy Crow, Faber & Faber’s transformative partnership with Touch Press, HarperCollins’s Game of Thrones Enhanced Edition, Pan Macmillan’s Bello, The Friday Project’s Confessions of a GP, the revolutionary new digital publishing platform Unbound and Faber & Faber’s in-house digital workflow. Most information was gathered directly from sources in the form of recorded interviews and emails, but I have used sources from blogs and trade press to enhance this research where appropriate.

In addition to the limits mentioned above, the report also focuses mostly on trade publishing experimentation. Although I did interview a number of smaller companies working with disruptive business models and on experimental interactive projects, I felt that these were still very much book start-ups attempting to buy into the trade rather than step away from it (or dismantle it). To an extent this focus on publishers wasn’t self-imposed – although I tried I could not get an interview or speak with representatives from the largest digital book retailer in the UK (Amazon – ranging from 70 – 90% of the ebook trade, depending on who you speak to). Without their input, I felt that it would not be useful to go into detail on experimentation in digital retailing. Although other retailers are engaged in some genuinely exciting experiments, ultimately I didn’t feel I was adequately representing the market and my time was better spent concentrating on digital product experiments rather than innovative sales channels.

Download the full report PDF here, or you can get it as an ebook in EPUB or Kindle format.


[1] Pack, Scott, publisher of The Friday Project, interview conducted 8/11/11

[2] Bowker (http://bit.ly/GNxSYH). 15/02/12

[3] Dead Tree Edition (http://bit.ly/GZjn29). 22/03/12


The Challenges of Training Publishers to use Social Media

The Tools of Change social media conference was another mixed bag – but it got me thinking about exactly what it means to be trained to use social media. The problem – and I suspect it’s something digital marketing shares with traditional marketing  – is that it’s difficult to train people to communicate well, and good communication skills are at the heart of effective digital marketing. There were a lot of “well, d’uh” moments during the conference today, but that’s not because what they were saying wasn’t true (or wasn’t useful). It’s just that it is nearly impossible to distil knowledge of social media and digital marketing strategy without stating the bleeding obvious.

Aliza Sherman kicked off the sessions with a high-energy overview of her seven steps to an effective social media campaign. They boil down to having a clear objective and audience, effectively marshalling the assets at your disposal, having a robust (but flexible) plan and measuring the results as effectively as possible.

One slightly more specific point Aliza raised that seemed to make an impact, and was echoed later by Sam Missingham from Futurebook and Julia Lampam from Wiley: email is still a very effective medium to get people to act. Although it is only one part of a social media strategy, email newsletters are still one of the most effective ways to drive traffic, and engage with an online community.

Arne Klempert from Fleishman Hillard spoke about (amongst many other things) the importance of building a community and maintaining an audience. As he said, “a community is not a community just because you want to market to them.” He also underlined the importance of ensuring social capital isn’t squandered in community building that is subsequently abandoned after a project is completed. Digital ghost towns don’t build loyalty to a brand.

Following on from this were a number of case studies and a session on how to prepare authors for social media involvement. There were some great takeaways from all the sessions, but for me the most salient point was that good people will make or break the publishing industry’s ability to effectively market their content online. There are a thousand potential skills to learn, but learning them requires a basic level of communication skill, sheer bloody-mindedness and hard work. Software tools were born and died in the time it took to attend this conference, but the skills to those tools effectively carry across platforms and technologies and time. There’s no point waiting for the right moment – you just have to do it – and be sure to share your results.




Tools of Change for Publishers

Day one of O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference was yesterday. It’s was a mixed bag, with a lot of very strong speakers and some that seemed to be struggling to make an impact (or struggling for something relevant to say). All in all the audience is pretty receptive – they want every one of the speakers to succeed, but this is a very tech-savvy crowd and there isn’t much tolerance for glossing over or, god forbid, patronising.

There were three keynotes to open the conference, and it seems the first – by blogger and marketing entrepreneur Mitch Joel – was the biggest hit with the audience. Joel’s talk wasn’t specific, but it was inspirational, exploring the paradigm of the new consumer and urging publishers to hit “ctrl-alt-delete” and make a fresh start in the way they see consumers in the digital age. The concept that seems to have struck the biggest chord is his not necessarily revolutionary, but it is timely –  a reminder that publishers need to stop thinking of their readers as a broadcast audience. ‘“Like our Facebook page!” he said, “why don’t you try liking their Facebook page, and following your loyal consumers’ social media.”’ He told an anecdote of a friend of his utilising Amazon Prime to act on a purchase recommendation instantaneously. This is how the consumer of the future will buy – immediately, or not at all. Recommendations are everything. He and a couple of Twitter friends began recommending a particular brand of luggage – whenever they mention it now they’re capable of getting a number of online retailers to sell out within hours. It seems trivial, but connecting to influential readers (and book recommenders) is, I think, really going to be the future of book marketing.

I saw David Gosen speak next, from Nielsen, who peppered the audience with some fantastic statistics about the penetration of devices, especially tablets, in the UK, US and European markets. None of the information was necessarily game changing, but having it all in one place and from one engaging speaker was incredibly useful. Some of the topics he covered included the tendency of tablet readers to dual screen – 69% of tablet owners watch their TV while using their devices, and the majority of the information they’re looking up is unrelated to what they’re watching. Gosen urged the publishers in the room to get rid of the idea of ‘downtime’ – downtime no longer exists. Following neatly from Mitch Joel’s speed to purchase anecdote, Gosen said consumers want to fill all their time quickly and efficiently, and if you can’t do that then you will lose their loyalty.

This ties in quite interestingly with something the keynote speaker Bob Stein from the morning session said regarding social reading. Stein – the creator of the Criterion Collections – is launching a social reading platform called SocialBook. SocialBook will allow readers to share annotations, comment on each others’ annotations and buy special add-on content.  Contrary to expectations, however, this kind of social reading isn’t just for the time rich. The ‘glosses’ that Stein is selling as add-ons to books through SocialBook allow readers to get the annotations from an expert reading of a longer text – and therefore skim information intelligently. On the flip side, SocialBook allows deep analysis of individual pages or annotations for a book that a reader has a genuine connection to. These tools allow readers to connect with each other and connect to texts on multiple levels depending on the desired level of interaction.

There were plenty of speakers and a lot of interesting information to cover, but I’d like to end this post with the phenomenal talk given by Elizabeth Wood from Worldreader. Worldreader is working to give ereaders (at the moment they’re using Kindles) to kids and schools in sub-Saharan Africa. Wood reminded me how radically e-reading technology is going to change things. As she said, Kindles (and other e-readers) are approaching a zero price point. Imagine a world in which 200 million readers in sub-Saharan Africa get access to instantaneous (largely English) reading. They might not pay $8 for a book – but as Wood pointed out, they will pay something. This has a tremendous potential impact on world democracy and literacy and on the longevity of the book as a cultural object. It’s an optimistic time – and a great time to be involved in books.

Amazon Just Made Ads in Books Work – Whether We Like it or Not

So I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that this year, Amazon will release a standard Kindle for $99 or less, making the prospect of buying a device like an e-reader that much more palatable (and possible) for ebook readers. What I didn’t really think about – but Amazon’s announcements overnight made clear – is that for the first time we’re going to see ad-supported Kindles hit the mainstream and make the awkward marriage between advertising and book reading an inescapable reality.

Amazon has been hawking its “Kindle With Special Offers” for nigh on six months now, so the ad-supported model is not something new. Many people complained, when they launched the new line, that the ad-supported Kindle wasn’t worth the $30 saving and made cheap and nasty the very idea of a book. I argued both.

The ad-supported Kindle has been selling relatively well, by all reports, but not shockingly well. This morning Amazon announced four new Kindle models (actually only three): the Kindle Fire (a tablet for $US199), the Kindle Touch with 3G ($149), the Kindle Touch ($99) and an updated standard Kindle ($79). Holy crap, that’s $79.

But the reported price points are all for the ad-supported version of the Kindle:

All three new Kindle e-readers also come with special offers and sponsored screensavers that appear when you’re not reading. Customers enjoy special money-saving offers delivered wirelessly sponsored by AT&T, the Dove beauty brand and Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card by Chase.

There will be an option to pay more for no ads, but it’ll cost $30. Ask yourself whether you’re willing to pay $30 to remove ads from your book. Then remind yourself that you’re reading a blog dedicated to ebook reading that you probably came across on Twitter. Then pretend you’re an ordinary consumer, the kind of person Amazon has always appealed to. The kind of consumer who feels like Amazon is doing them a solid when they undercut all the competition and sell books for less than what they’re worth.

The new line of Kindles is the first time that a brand new shiny has been released that will cost you more to buy if you don’t want ads. The previous ad-supported models were released mid-cycle (a very clever move in hindsight). Nothing about those “Kindle with Special Offers” was new, and so it was easy to ignore what was happening. But these new Kindles are. And Amazon’s customers are very price conscious. Are they going to be bothered by a few screensaver ads if it means they can get a $30 saving? And when Amazon have a couple of hundred million devices floating out there with the in-built ability to display advertising – what do you think those ads will be worth?

They’ll certainly be worth a lot to publishers. Publishers have always wanted an avenue to advertise books that specifically reached book readers. They’ve paid millions in dollars in co-op payments to Amazon and many other stores to promote their books at the front of store (or on the front page of a web store). How much do you think they’ll pay to have (virtually) every Kindle reader in the world looking at the cover of a book they’re selling?

As I said in the headline, Amazon just made ads work in books, whether we like it or not.

Kindle Library Lending – What You Need to Know

Amazon announced this morning that they are rolling out their support for library lending to 11,000 libraries (read: 11,000 libraries in the United States). This has been a long time coming, and the deal and technology has so many moving parts I wasn’t sure if it ever would. But are libraries a part of our digital book future? And should they be?

First of all: the history. Amazon hasn’t made connections with all of those 11,000 libraries all alone. To access the libraries they went through Overdrive. Overdrive is an ebook distributor/wholesaler, who has primarily been concentrating on the library market for the last few years. They’ve done well – almost every library ebook lending service is powered by Overdrive. However, Overdrive’s service has previously only supported ePub and Adobe’s DRM scheme. That means that it only worked with devices that support Adobe’s DRM – for example the Sony eReader, Nook, Kobo, iPad (via Overdrive’s app) and other less successful devices. The partnership with Amazon opens up Amazon’s entire platform to library lending.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a one-way street. Amazon’s major strength as a platform has always been its range of ebooks. The Kindle’s range is by far the biggest of the ebook vendors. This range of ebooks is not suddenly going to be available for lending now that Amazon has joined up with Overdrive for library lending. All it means is that the same ebooks that are currently available to Overdrive’s customers via their local library will now also be available to Kindle owners (or owners of iPads, iPhones or Android devices who use the Kindle app).

Why is this so? There are a number of reasons. First of all, libraries still have to buy access for their patrons to individual titles. And they’re not all buying. Second of all, many publishers have not made their ebooks available to Overdrive for lending to libraries. Why? Because it’s still a model that has bugs.

Dead tree libraries are limited by what they can fit on their shelves, their budgets for purchasing and, in the end, that each book can only be borrowed by one person at a time for a certain amount of time. These are physical limitations that don’t apply to ebooks at all. At the moment, Overdrive imposes physical limitations on library lended ebooks – dependent on what the publisher has agreed to. For the most part it is two week lending, and only one person can borrow one ebook at a time. Some publishers (like HarperCollins) have imposed further limitations, allowing that each ebook a library makes available can only be borrowed 26 times before the library must buy anther copy of the book. As many have said, these limitations seem to be quite artificial in a digital world.

But what is the alternative? Books cost something. Libraries foot the bill for that cost in the dead tree model. It is difficult to evaluate how to make that cost work in a library environment for a book that will never wear out and could be copied by a thousand people at a time with no degradation of the original. All limitations in this model will have to be artificial, or else there will be no limitations. And that will inevitably undermine the business model for publishing books in the first place. I don’t have an answer for how to balance that equation, or indeed if libraries will even work as a repository for digital books in the future at all.

What do you think about digital libraries? Do you borrow ebooks from your local library? What kinds of limitations do they have? Why do you think publishers should support libraries (and how much should they charge?). Sound off in the comments below.

The Many Faces of the Kindle

So Amazon have finally started officially letting word out about their new tablet. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has used one himself, and TechCrunch put together the mock-up above to demonstrate how it looks. The tablet will be called a ‘Kindle’ – not a Kindle Pad, or a Kindle Slate or any of the other variations thrown around. I can’t decide if that’s a good move or not – capitalising on the branding/cachet of saying you own a Kindle whilst risking confusion about what a Kindle actually is. Either way, this new Kindle is going to be focused squarely at the book reading market, which is a good thing for all digital readers.

As you can see from the mock-up above the new Kindle will be focused on the content, providing a carousel / CoverFlow like interface that puts the stuff you own on the device, rather than the device itself, at the forefront of the experience. This is quite different to the iPad, and to other Android-based tablets, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. Amazon isn’t shy about owning their own ecosystem through and through, and that’s almost certainly why they’ve been so successful with it. They’ll be using their own Amazon-branded app store, which they launched for Android-based devices at the end of last year. Even the flavour of Android they’re using on the Kindle is completely different to the one used on smartphones and other Android tablets, and apparently there isn’t a Google app to be seen anywhere on the device (Google is responsible for the lion’s share of the development of Android – and releases it for free as open-source to the developer community, which means it can be easily changed by vendors like Amazon to suit their purposes).

So, on to the details. The new Kindle will be 7″ (somewhere between an iPhone and an iPad – and the same size as the original Galaxy Tab by Samsung). It will only have WiFi – no 3G. It looks like it doesn’t include a camera of any sort. But here’s the kicker – it’ll be $250. That’s half the price of the entry-level iPad, and a good hundred bucks cheaper than the cheapest Android tablets. Granted, it’s not going to be as useful as an iPad, but this is going to seriously complicate how I answer the “Should I get an iPad or Kindle?” question.

So what do you think? Will you be tempted to get a new Kindle? Is this something that would lure you away from e-ink? Or is this device just falling between the cracks of usefulness – a big phone without 3G mobile data that isn’t as easy to read on as an e-ink reader? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

BookLamp’s Book Genome Project

So this is an awesome little project I’ve only just heard of. Hands up if you’ve heard of Pandora, the music recommendation engine? If you haven’t and you live in Australia, then you probably can’t use it. Unless you decide to spoof your IP address to get access to it. Either way, Pandora’s Music Genome Project has delighted many for the past few years by predicting the kinds of music you will like based on the music you already enjoy. This sounds pretty standard for anyone used to using Apple’s Genius playlists on iTunes or Last.fm (or many other similar services). Where Pandora is different is that it uses computers (and people) to analyse the content of music for themes, pitch, tonality and a long list of other features to compile the ‘genome’ of a particular song, artist or album. Similar music recommendation services use an algorithm based on what other people like to recommend new stuff to you. Pandora uses an algorithm to create an on-the-fly radio station of songs similar to what you’re after based on what they actually contain (and not the ephemeral tastes of other people). If you haven’t tried it, trust me – it’s awesome.

BookLamp and the Book Genome Project are now doing essentially the same thing for books. Perhaps this sounds like a Skynet-style artificial intelligent takeover of our book-recommendation habits. That’s probably because it TOTALLY IS:

The key focus of the Book Genome Project is to use computer intelligence to extract and quantify, on a scene-by-scene basis, useful information about these key elements of books. Consequently, we created a “gene structure” for each of the three primary elements that we analyze.

The genomic analogy is imperfect but useful nevertheless: we defined the three elements of Language, Story, and Character as the literary equivalent of DNA and RNA classifications. Each gene category contains its own subset of measurements specific to its branch of the book genome structure.

Language DNA, for example, is made up of components that we call Pacing, Perspective, Description, Density, Motion, and Dialog, and each of these is an amalgamation of alleles which capture the expressions of different aspects of linguistic style.

They are using alleles. I mean, what is that even? Do you know? I don’t. I dropped science classes in Year 10.

At any rate, BookLamp has launched its consumer facing website and will soon be taking books on from publishers to add to their database. It’s not very big at the moment, and that affects the variety of books it can recommend (and the ultimate usefulness of the service), but when it gets up and running there’s no telling how good this engine will get. The best thing about it, from my perspective, is that it gets us out from under the yoke of customer-based recommendation engines like Amazon’s. Amazon’s service is great, but as I’ve written about before, it isn’t necessarily without bias.

What do you think of BookLamp’s offering? Will you be sticking to good old word-of-mouth, or will you give it a go? Sound off in the comments.

New Direction, New Momentum

Plenty of things have been happening in the world of ebooks over the past few weeks, but for the first time I’ve been too busy working on an exciting project of my own to post about them. That project is Momentum, a new digital-only imprint of Pan Macmillan Australia, which was announced today. As a publisher for Momentum, I’ll be looking for books to publish globally, from writers who are digitally savvy, switched on to the possibilities of electronic publishing and, perhaps most importantly, know how to tell a good story.

Momentum will be launching in February 2012 with a truly amazing stable of frontlist authors. I am honoured to get the chance to work with each of these writers, and I look forward to the opportunity to work with new and established authors alike in the future.

I also want to hear from authors who have older titles that are out of print or yet to be digitised who want to inject new life into their old books. There are potentially thousands of books out there that can no longer be accessed online or off and no longer provide an income for the authors who wrote them. Momentum will give these writers the opportunity to breathe new life into previously published work and make them accessible for a new audience of digital readers.

Accessibility is going to be the name of the game for Momentum. Momentum ebooks will be available globally and at an affordable price. The Smell of Books has provided me with a wonderful excuse to listen to digital readers, and I think there is a lot I can do to make the relationship between readers and publishers as open as possible. This is going to be a tremendously exciting time, so I hope you’ll spread the word and contribute your thoughts, ideas and hopefully your books!

The Smell of Books will continue as before – to analyse, rant at and report the book technology and digital reading news. If there is anything in particular you’d like me to cover, please sound off in the comments below and I’ll do my best to take a look in the coming weeks and months.