Bite-sized Content – emerging trends and possible futures of publishing

When I was asked if I’d join a discussion group on the future of publishing, funded by the Technology Strategy Board and facilitated by SAMI, I was pretty curious. As a published author, as well as a frequent purchaser of books, I’ve got views about publishers, retail outlets, marketing, pricing and so forth. And the trends around publishing have had my attention for a few years now, as publishing is one of the emerging trends we follow.

Publishing has undergone immense changes in the past 20 years, especially since the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, and is now facing yet more disruptions. The information and internet revolution, e-books, self-publishing, Amazon, the democratisation of information and data…. All have contributed to challenge an industry that has had to adapt to survive: and there are those with strong views as to whether the industry IS surviving. This session was about what a successful and pro-active response should be from all sides: authors, publishers, media, legal etc.

The bad news is that business as usual doesn’t work anymore in the publishing industry. The old-style publishing industry is gone, and cannot be retrieved.

The good news is that the picture is not, by any means, one of doom and gloom. After a day of lively, inventive thinking and discussion, what the group came up with was Win/Win/Win: good for the authors, for the publishers, for academics, for aggregators/curators of information/’new product developers’, for agents and for customers of books/information/journals etc. The group, which comprised representatives from a range of backgrounds in media, publishing, law, authors and new business ventures, followed the discipline of the Foresight tool, Three Horizons; this generated a satisfyingly large number of possibilities in the section of Horizon Two, called Transition Strategies.

Here are some possibilities that I found particularly interesting:

• Like iTunes, you will have the ability to buy one chapter (one track) for a low price. Then possibly to buy another, and then buy the whole book (album). As a bonus, the price you’ve already paid is deducted. A great way to try-before-you-buy, or, if you are developing a course as a teaching academic or trainer, to get exactly the chapter you need. This is an additional revenue stream for authors and publishers.
• Ability to develop new products (books, journals, etc.) by mixing content of different authors. For instance, an HR book that decided it wanted some strategy, could take a strategy chapter from another author. Win/Win – the strategy author (and their publisher) would get more income without having to do more work – and both are introduced, painlessly, to a new market.
• Birth of a new type of service to pull together all the different elements involved in creating these new publishing products e.g.: agent + connector + publisher + marketer + distributor. Would he/she be called an Aggregator? Or New Product Developer, perhaps? Or Publisher/ Creator?
• Ability for academics (lecturers) to easily develop new course materials. They could create their own course book taking the chapters/content they want from different authors. Those authors would, clearly, have to give their permission for bite-size chunks to be used in this way; and to be recompensed. The lecturer adds value by preparing the course (developing facilitator/tutor guide) and selling that as an added value ‘content’ package. The course material thus created can be branded, and made available to a wider audience than just participating students.
• Add other media to content. Not just digital writing, but also other things – video/Vimeo/Youtube, games, interactive sessions, webinars etc.
• One of the difficulties identified was that there isn’t yet a standard for how published data is stored. In future will we all standardise on ePub? Or something else? Also with lots of different chapters, how do we get a professional, consistent, good-looking product? Students might not care so much (especially if they are buying at a discounted rate), but others will be more willing to pay for a collection which has obviously and clearly been efficiently and attractively put together and ‘curated.’
• Another difficulty discussed was how to give full identity rights to each piece within the larger, ISBN’d whole. However, this is something which – with further thought and investigation – could be overcome. Perhaps one of the first tasks for the new Aggregator?
• The whole move from so called ‘vanity publishing’ to what is now called ‘self-publishing’. Already, publishing in this way encompasses print-on-demand, ordering a print run, publishing as an e-book etc. The public ‘gets’ self-publishing now. Differences are emerging in the approaches taken by small/medium publishers who deal with this type of book. Some of them have their own imprint and vet the books they publish; they are not in the “vanity publishing” mould, and won’t publish just anything. Standards of content and presentation are being maintained, or improved, in this sector as such publishers build their own lists within their own brands. They are helped in this as more and more “established” authors choose to self-publish, disillusioned by the service – and royalties – provided by their big-name publishers.

With so many possibilities, options and challenges put forward, the group identified the need for a powerful, accessible software portal that would help small and medium publishers to accomplish these advances; went on to debate what that should look like; and considered how it would work. All big topics and certainly not solvable in one day!

We look forward to hearing more as the project unfolds.

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