How Book, Magazine Publishing Survive Digital Age



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These article by Nick Coveney, followed by that of BBC’s Amol Rajan show traditional publishing only had a hangover and was not killed by digital publishing,

In 2010 Steve Jobs announced another killer product that would propel tech companies, publishers and consumers into an exciting new era. The iPad launched tablet devices into the consumer consciousness in a way which few would have believed possible at the time. Now with over 40 per cent of the worldwide population believed to own at least one tablet and 91 per cent smart phone, smart devices are here to stay. So why did so many book apps fail to work?

In those heady days of early book app development, publishers commissioned developers in a landscape much more like the Wild West than you’d be believe possible unless you’d experienced it first-hand. We were in unknown territory which seemed rife with opportunity, but developer costs were extremely high – as were industry expectations – and consumer interest was practically non-existent. Which often led to digital ghost towns rather than the envisioned gold mines.

I always characterise this period as publishing experiencing its awkward teenage experimentation with digital. There were many developers “courting” publishers, with publishers equally keen to prove their digital prowess to their authors and agents (and each other of course). This led to some expensive apps which flopped spectacularly in commercial terms. Was it good for you? No, it wasn’t good for me either.

The ensuing relationships were often fraught with good intentions, angst and broken promises. They usually culminated in a bad consumer experience or an extremely mediocre one, doomed to eventual mothballing.

In the years which have followed we have endured endless prophecies on digital disruption. Subscription would be the death of traditional bookshops/traditional bookshops are killing off subscription services. Websites rule/the web has failed.

Now the tide has apparently turned yet again, and apparently, our old reliable e-book is dead, as readers experience “screen fatigue” or decide to embrace that most literary of social media phenomena, the “shelfie”, fuelled by an apparent craze in bookshelf shopping.

One of the biggest challenges facing digital publishing is that as an industry we are not in control of consumer consciousness. We are now competing not merely competing with each other, but with other entertainment industries for the escapism choices of our consumers.

In the digital space, publishers are not yet meeting an existing user demand for an innovative narrative experiences – because there isn’t a demand to meet. The human race evolved with literature, in its physical printed forms, at its heart for centuries. But for books to retain that central place in the future we need to claim the digital reading space. We need to experiment and explore to help consumers discover the new reading experiences awaiting them.

Any digitally native reading experience is arguably going against learned behaviour. The rapid boom and gradual market consolidation of pure e-readers is a key example of this. Every aspect of a greyscale reader is designed to mirror the appearance and tactile experience of a physical book. They’ve now “lost their shine” and are no longer perceived as a trendy must-have. In other words – consumers have moved on.

For a start, what press coverage like this fails to acknowledge is the huge market for cloud reading, now supported by almost every computer and all smart devices. Just because fewer people are seen reading on kindles doesn’t mean the market has disappeared. Phones and tablets offer alternative access to our e-reading or digital listening libraries. The digital download business is positively booming with 28 per cent growth last year.. Nor should we confuse a maturing and contracting e-book market with a dying one.

Does this mean that digital is dead for book publishers? Of course not.

Across publishers of all sizes, there are still the tell-tale signs of an industry that’s cautiously experimenting with business models and content, learning and pivoting to support what works, and shying away from what doesn’t. To me, it feels as though we’ve woken from the digital hangover of the early ‘10s and found that we still have many more exciting, and commercial opportunities, to explore – but that we do need to be careful and considered in how we approach untested models and markets.

What this means in practice, is that we have to experiment in a commercially viable way to bring our incredible world-class IP to life, through previously unexplored reading experiences. We will need to iterate in order to create new ways of accessing our content, and publishers will continue to innovate via projects. Some of these will fail – but we need to be taking risks, because if we don’t, our customers will follow the tech companies who do.

HarperCollins UK is totally committed to working with the most exciting partners, such as Hopster and talkRADIO, to find wholly new ways to bring books to life digitally.

Magazines: How print is surviving the digital age

Print sales have been declining for several years as readers find their content online – but now, something unusual is happening.

When was the last time you bought a magazine?

The answer is likely to depend on whether you prefer reading about Theresa May or Taylor Swift.

Magazine sales have generally been falling since the day the inventor of the internet said: “Hey, why don’t I invent the internet?”

But the latest ABC figures, released this week, show that sales of certain titles are actually going up.

News and current affairs magazines are becoming more popular – but celebrity, gossip and fashion publications are still struggling.

It’s a trend that Sarah Penny, editor of Fashion Monitor, puts down to the news agenda.

“I think that we can all agree that the past 18 months have been pretty tumultuous within current affairs,” she says.

“With the likes of Brexit and Trump’s election, the unsettled nature of society drives readers to seek out factual news and understand the effects on the economy for themselves from reputable titles that have an authoritative voice.”

The titles that seem to be benefiting from this Trump bump include The Economist and The Spectator.

Between January and June this year both sold more per issue than they did in the same period in 2016.

Take a look at some celebrity, gossip and fashion titles, and the opposite is true.

In the early nineties Heat magazine was an absolute bible for showbiz news junkies looking for their fix of Big Brother and Britney Spears.

But these days it’s more about Kylie and Kendall – and they tend to use Instagram rather than ink to connect with their fans.

“Gossip and celebrity tittle-tattle is rarely something that requires detailed analysis – so it’s best suited to bite-sized content that zips around on social media,” says Ian Burrell, media columnist for the I paper and The Drum.

“Once it’s out there, it’s quickly shared and readers move on to the next morsel. No-one wants to wait a week to read about it in a print magazine.

Penny adds: “With the competition from digital media, vlogs, blogs and podcasts, readers are finding that their thirst for the content covered in the celebrity weeklies can be satisfied elsewhere for free and with ease online.”

The way some quality newspapers and magazines have been able to survive in recent years is by introducing pay walls on their online content.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, wrote recently: “A big change is taking place in the market. There’s now too much writing online, and in an era of fake news, where you get your analysis from has never been more important.”

“As newspapers and magazines are finding out, if you can publish writing that is consistently and significantly better than what can be found online, people will pay.”

But many editors are struggling to strike the right balance between physical and digital content.

They are faced with the choice of either posting all their articles online for free so the magazine stays relevant, or charging readers money to protect the financial future of the brand.

Earlier this week – US Vogue marked its 125th anniversary issue with a new interview and photo shoot with Jennifer Lawrence – one of the top film stars in the world.

Sounds like a good read, right? But the whole interview was also posted online by the magazine, removing any incentive for a fan to buy a paper copy.

“When you have major free news sites – such as Mail Online, The Sun and the Daily Mirror – pumping out celebrity and entertainment words, video and entire photo shoots around the clock, it’s hard to see how a magazine is going to find it easy to charge readers for something that’s likely to be offering stale news and limited pictures,” Burrell says.

“At best, a celeb mag will be bought as a treat for the reader, which makes it a dispensable purchase in comparison to the high-quality news analysis publication providing information that its readers regard as valuable and essential.”

But as Burrell points out: “Many readers are hungry for a deeper understanding of the fast-moving changes in global news and politics rather than seeking to escape from it by burying their heads in celebrity gossip and entertainment stories.”

Serious times call for serious journalism, and an extraordinarily frantic news agenda over the past year – with Brexit, Trump, a snap election, terror attacks and Grenfell Tower – has driven sales boosts for upmarket titles.

This is because their intelligent take on events is a unique selling point. Whereas general-interest daily news has been turned into an almost universally available commodity by the internet, specialist journalism – from the unforgiving wit of Private Eye to the proud wonkery of Prospect – is still a service people value and think they can’t get elsewhere.

The internet is full of celebrity drivel, so print magazines who focus on the rich and famous will need to find something unique if they are to retain paying audiences. That something is what editors are paid to conjure up.