Publishing houses, as we know them today, have in essence been around since the 15th Century. Within that time they have had to develop and embrace many technological advances; but never has the industry had to face new ideology and change on such an unprecedented scale as it is having to now with the move to digital content publishing. This is bringing a high level of uncertainty, but it also presents the opportunity to develop in unimaginable ways, ultimately engaging many more millions of readers all over the world. Despite the news stories of bookshops closing down every week, low sales and Amazon’s impinging dominance, The Golden Age of Publishing is definitely upon us. Well at least potentially.

We were at Book Machine and City University’s conference Publishing Now: The Golden Age of Innovation in early December and had an interesting 2 days of talks, debate and chatting about Publishing and its future. Whilst there is a lot of positive things happening out there it still seems like there are a few big barriers that are getting in the way of this truly becoming the Golden Age. We explore a few of these points in more detail below in light of what was said at the conference.

There have been plenty of technological advancements that have revolutionised and changed the world around us, however, it seems that publishers just haven’t got to grips with some of the major ones yet. Take the internet as an example and the opportunity this has given companies for ecommerce & social networking. All you have to do is look at giants like Amazon, Google and Facebook to see the potential for worldwide domination through the comfort of what is effectively a Publisher’s office chair.

It’s going to take some very brave and forward thinking people within and outside the industry to make these changes happen and adopt and innovate in a way that is sustainable. But, if they survive, this will ultimately strengthen the publishing industry as a whole for years to come, or at least until the next big technological breakthrough.

With digital content there seems to be two large, interlinked problems that are facing publishers. One is the lack of digital skills in the general market and also internally at publishing houses. The other is the cost of developing and publishing digital content – both are intrinsically linked and need to be solved if digital isn’t going to bankrupt the industry.

Publishers seem to be quite desperate to jump on the digital bandwagon and are paying the price for this. It can be argued that digital developers are exploiting the industry that doesn’t have the skill set in this area they so desperately want to be seen succeeding in. As it stands vast sums of money are lining the developers purses and are not making the ROI for publishers. People are not buying the digital products in the droves needed to recuperate the costs let alone make a profit. In Media Futures The Future of Publishing report published last week, the example of ustwo’s Nursery Rhyme StoryTime app was used to demonstrate this problem. This app was top of the appstore’s book apps chart and recouped £24,000, a success right? However, the development of this enhanced book cost £60,000 and so made a huge loss. Failure? Well it could have been seen as a vital piece of investment and means that future apps on this scale will succeed, but is this likely?

So, with developers charging a premium to create digital apps and products the industry is starting to think they need to up skill their current staff and get the necessary skills into the industry. However, is the industry prepared to pay to bring these skills in house? A conversation with a developer which we had recently said that you wouldn’t get a good developer to get out of bed for less than a £1,000 per day and you wouldn’t ever get them to tie themselves into working for one company.

Faber and Faber, under the direction of Stephen Page, seem to be going in the right direction in terms of partnering with Touch Press and winning awards with their app The Waste Land. At last week’s FutureBook conference Page emphasised the need to retain the existing skills set of employees who have a wealth of knowledge and experience. The other side to this argument was put forward by Alistair Horne at Publishing Now in that if you up skill your workforce and don’t change their salary scale, this new skilled workforce will start to wander out the door to companies and industries who do recognise and reward their expertise. So in-house staff will still need to be paid an equivalent salary for these skills. Even if these new salaries aren’t quite in line with the developer who charges £1000 a day can the publishing industry afford to do this? And can they warrant paying someone a salary that far exceeds everyone else’s in the building?

The industry is trying to hold onto the skill sets of the past, trying to develop the existing staff and embrace new roles. This is challenging for any organisation especially one that is having to face and cope with these fast and drastic changes in the landscape. And so upskilling the workforce in some capacity does seem the best all round solution. As well as finding suppliers and developers who understand the publishing industry and can look at new ways of partnering with them (perhaps a share of royalties for taking a joint risk).

At the moment, and understandably, corporations like Amazon, Google and Apple are threatening. And so there is a real need to both embrace and work with them. Like ‘Google Currents’ ad model. Or work better as an industry to cut them out altogether. If the industry was to come together more to share and collaborate to strengthen the position of the publishing industry as a whole then there might be a better chance of the industry being able to compete with the likes of Amazon or at least be on a better footing to bargain with them. And although Amazon is a threat to the publishing industry, is it a threat to the reading buying public? This rather controversial article from Slate seems to suggest otherwise.

At the moment the industry feels a bit too secular and worries too much about it’s competitors within the publishing industry. In the process it may have missed the bigger picture of what has been happening with the rest of the world around them.

A lot of parallels have been drawn to the music industry and in a wise move the Publishers Association has appointed ex BPI (representative body of the UK recorded music industry) Public Affairs Director Richard Mollet. It begs the question what are the PA doing and how are they encouraging and facilitating publishers to work together as an industry and not as separatist organisations. Hopefully the appointment of Mollet will be a strengthening feature and will be able to provide a lot of insight and lessons drawn from what happened to the music industry. The signs of working together more are starting to become apparent, for example the new Professional Shadowing Scheme being organised by the Publishers Association and Booksellers Association. But there needs to be more.

One of the final points that was discussed throughout Publishing Now is the variety of enhancements and new methods to get the cost of production down:

  • Understanding the costs better.
  • Print On Demand (P.O.D).
  • Getting the licensing right from the beginning.
  • Better editing at the beginning of project.
  • Planning for a Global market at the beginning of a project.
  • Designing for MENA from the beginning – watch this space for future post about this.

We don’t want to end this on a negative note – yes there are problems at the moment and so the industry is going to have to rapidly address these. But there are a lot of positive things that are happening. Publishers are looking at new ways of working, looking to new partnerships and fostering stronger relationships with new and existing companies. More knowledge is being exchanged through all of this as publishers are having to work closer with their readers, whether they be in trade or education. People have a larger appetite for finding out about things – the Publishing Now debate on the Friday night was clearly discussing and agreeing that we are a generation of Instant Gratification. And Publishers are recognising that this appetite for knowledge needs to be fed.

New technology is starting to be embraced and experimented with (sustainably or not) and no one can argue that publishers are not trying to look at new digital formats and ways of presenting content.

One of the most positive things we as a design company took from the weekend is that design and the way something is presented is still one of the main things that matter to every product. If something looks fantastic and works well and the content is right then you have a winning product! And communicating information and content visually is what we do best.