Photo E. Whittaker: Publish! A Day of Innovation on the Future of the Book. 8 December 2011, Watershed, Bristol.

Publish! was convened by Media Futures’s Nico MacDonald and Laura North in partnership with Tracey Guiry of Cyprus Well, in collaboration with Plymouth University and funded by NESTA. The one-day conference brought together authors, artists, publishing houses, academia and digital entrepreneurs, speakers and delegates from across the breadth of publishing and beyond.

The conference posed the question, “Can innovation invigorate the book and the publishing industries?” Innovation was debated in terms of the form and content of the book.  Far from the death of the printed the book, print can be a partner of digital, as demonstrated by Meg Geldens of Touch Press, where iPad apps are stimulating demand for printed versions of the titles. The digital can be seen to extend user interaction with the use of sound, image and game play, creating greater accessibility and the potential of multiple presentations of content in a variety of formats that may be print, ebooks, games, ‘mixed reality’ or cross-platform.

A central theme of Publish! was the adoption of appropriate and sustainable business models to underpin the creation and distribution of digital practices. Authors, small start-ups and representatives from established publishing houses discussed their current and newly launched innovative solutions that included subscription, streamed content, pay-per-page and partnership with content owners/ownership of content.

The conference was structured as five themed sessions. ‘Innovation and the Book’ began the day by offering a review of the current state of the publishing industry in the UK. Alistair Horne of Cambridge University Press presented an overview of his findings from the report Future of Publishing, commissioned for the conference. Horne argued for practical strategies that could be applied within the publishing industry: (i) Skills: addressing the current digital skills shortage within the publishing industry. (ii) Processes: traditional publishing processes do not work for digital publishing (iii) Reading: taking advantage of the additional functionality of digital and extending content (iv) Relationships: developing partnerships between businesses, small start-ups and publishing houses to help obviate the dominance of Amazon, Apple and Google.

Future speculator Richard Higham considered how digital technologies will continue to affect the publishing industry, particularly in terms of the format of the book, its functionality and the delivery of content to customers through serialization, streaming or as stand-alone apps.

Michael Kowalski, CEO of Contentment, formally of Guardian Online, illustrated the practical constraints posed by digital formats – containers for the book. Device sizes, orientation and the particularities of coding, Kowalski argued, pose challenges and opportunities for publishers, authors and designers.

The second session ‘Making Money from Digital’ showcased current work in digital publishing, hosted by Haidee Bell of NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

Anna Lewis from the start-up company demonstrated VALOBOX, software, currently in beta, that offers a method for monetising ebooks on a pay-as-you-go basis. Readers pay 10 cents per page and can then embed and distribute content across social media platforms. Questions from the audience raised the concern that content would be freely distributed, without any return for the publisher. Lewis responded by arguing that if the reader enjoyed the freely distributed page they would pay for the section, chapter or rest of the book.

Meg Geldens of Touch Press demonstrated the award winning iPad The Waste Land and also Gems & Jewels, The Solar System and the recently published Skulls. Touch Press specialize in multi-layered apps that offer in-depth content with high production values that aim to have a universal appeal often with an educational emphasis. The visual aesthetic, as Geldens described is, of a coffee-table book. Touch Press take a partnership approach working with content owners such as publishers, universities, music companies and museums. The apps retail at the high end of the market. Geldens reported that the production costs were between $40,000 $50,000 for Touch Press’s early iPad Apps reaching to $100,000 for current projects. The app Solar System sales generated revenue of $700,000, The Waste Land $100,000 (after Apple’s percentage).

Photo E. Whittaker: Publish! A Day of Innovation on the Future of the Book. 8 December 2011, Watershed, Bristol.

Printing over a million books a year Charles Catton describes the business Amber Books as an illustrated book packager. Catton argues that one of the strengths of the business is the company’s ownership of the content copyright that enables cost effective cross-platform distribution. Content may appear as printed illustrated books, sticker books and apps or ebooks. Amber Books apps offer a range of complexity and user interaction that include the low-cost top trumps format of Dragons to medium market apps that utilise animated maps, quizzes, text, animation, such as Human Body and D-Day Landing.

The third session of the day ‘Pioneers or Playing it Safe’ hosted by Suzanne Kavanagh of Skillset introduced three speakers who offered their approaches to thinking about business, publishing and creativity. Dean Johnson of Brandwidth discussed how to get your app noticed and promoted by Apple in a crowded App Store market by creating apps that showcase the capabilities of Apple’s technology. Johnson also argued that the TV would play a greater role in publishing in the future as another platform from which apps and other content will be viewed.

Erica Wolfe-Murray of Lola Media discussed her approach to business innovation by identifying a company’s or individual’s often overlooked assets and repurposing these assets as new business opportunities. This may involve recognizing untapped skills, material or intellectual property rights that have yet to be fully utilised.

Naomi Alderman, the novelist, journalist and games writer advocated writing for multiple platforms. Alderman’s recent app for iPhone and Android, Zombies Run! is a running game financed by Kickstarter, raising £70,000 in pre-order sales with its crowd funding mechanism.

The session ‘Inventing the Future’ asked how can we make money from digital. Hosted by Adam Gordon of Future Savvy, speakers Dave Addey of Agant, Chris Book of Bardowl and Matt Marsh of Firsthand Experience discussed their company’s approaches and products. Dave Addey of Agant advocated apps that fill-in dead time and build upon and extend content with existing value, such as their TV tie-in the QI iPhone app and the innovative Malcolm Tucker the Missing Phone iPhone app. The BBC political satire The Thick of It moves from screen to lived experience in the aforementioned app, implicating the user into the story with ‘real’ voicemail messages from the characters played by the on-screen actors.

Chris Book of Bardowl declares the audio book “…as a hugely important niche…” and advocates its reinvention with a shift in the business model from single purchases to a subscription model of streamed content. Bardowl’s model allocates revenue proportionately to authors linked to the number of minutes titles are streamed. Data concerning minutes streamed, sections of books most read and reader comments, informs authors and publishers. Book advocates using social media to promote audio titles through Twitter provide links to free samples of audio books. Celebrity readers and endorsement of titles, he suggests, are also important marketing tools.

Matt Marsh of Firsthand Experience described the role of ethnographic research and it’s importance in the design process of the development of the first E-reader. Ethnographic research, Marsh considers, is essential to understanding what he considers to be the key issues: what people really want, when does reading comfort really matter, if annotation is required, the size of memory required and the kinds of services that should sit behind E-readers.

The final session of the day ‘How to Innovate’ was chaired by Paul Squires of Perera accompanied by the speakers Dr.Tom Abba of University of the West of England, David Burton of RedWeb and Professor Mike Phillips of i-DAT, Plymouth University.

Dr.Tom Abba of University of the West of England asked what is the relationship between form and content. Abba argued that digital changes the way that we write and read. The printed text is fixed whereas the reader of the digital text does not necessarily know the scale of the writing. These ideas are themes in Abba’s creative work, he suggests, “…find the corners of a text, like a jigsaw [that] shows the edges of what is there…”

David Burton of the Bristol-based award winning web design company RedWeb discusses the value of hack-projects, in-house exercises that ask his employees “…to get together and build cool stuff…”, by developing creative and fun solutions to problems.  Burton argues that the time set aside for these projects allow his employees to take risks, make mistakes and be inventive and that this has positive benefits by fostering a culture of innovation within the company.

Professor Mike Phillips of Plymouth University gave an overview of some recent projects within i-DAT citing – the real-time feed of data collected from the body as a source of material. It has multiple potential uses and is currently utilised within the project for generating new forms of interaction in stories and games. Phillips identified uncertainty as an important factor in innovation and advocated sustained research within academia and industry.

Publish! A Day of Innovation on the Future of the Book, offered a broad range of speakers, approaches and practice that was reflected by an equally diverse audience. The key messages emerging from the day were that there is no single answer to innovation and the future of the book but many possible and approaches. The future is not bleak but to the contrary, there is room in the present and emerging markets for the future of the book to be many things: written and illustrated content can be for a mass market or niche; content may be of varying quality and production values; revenue may be generated in large or small increments commensurate with the product and mode of delivery. The delivery of content should be in forms appropriate to the audience that meshes with their behaviour and expectations on and offline.

Authors and publishers should be prepared to innovate with the form and content of the book and it’s mode of distribution. Business models should be appropriate to the digital product and processes, rather than relying upon those established within print industry. The future of the book may not be book-shaped but it will be as multifarious and dynamic as the producers and promoters of its content.


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