Is innovation in publishing about to go mainstream? The Bookseller and the Literary Platform have been running the FutureBook Innovation Workshop for three years now, but what impressed me this year was that even the most innovative projects looked grounded in a sense of what was possible, what a successful outcome might look like, and how important the story was to attracting (and retaining) an audience.
The challenge for publishers was articulated by HarperCollins group strategy and digital director Nick Perrett in his opening address, who stressed that the sector needed now to focus on innovation. "Are you ready?" he asked. Perrett reckons that publishing should expect over the next five years the same profound shake-up experienced by the games industry, when a change in platforms and how gamers could consume new material altered the dynamics of that sector completely.
Perrett said that he expected some publishing giants to fail, but that a £1bn digital native would emerge. New types of content would come forward, as would new ways of interactive with the audience. "I think there will be a move away from issues like e-book pricing, to publishers just asking how many daily active readers do I have interacting with my content right now?" This year's crop of innovations already showed that happening, with web-based interactive stories, agile-publishing, talking books and the use of geo-location in stories.
More widely though, Perrett is onto to something. Publishing is now at that moment when it can begin to imagine a commercial future for projects that don't simply replicate the print book. And I don't agree with Agent Orange that this might be the preserve of the smaller publishers. Random House's Black Crown is a good recent example of what a major publisher can do, even if, as digital Dan Franklin admitted, the internal pitch was made easer by the success of a very typical kind of book - Fifty Shades of Grey.
The risk is that it is only digitally native publishers (such as Hot Key Books, whose Sara O'Connor spoke about its Story Adventures project), or companies outside the traditional publishing business, who put innovation at the heart of their business.
What's important, and what the Innovation Workshops have shown, is that finding the holy grail is only slightly more important than making the journey in the first place. As one FIW delegate said this is a space that should be 'owned' by the publisher: they have access to the authors, finance to fund the projects, the know-how to develop big projects, the understanding of where the rights reside, and are natural risk takers. But they need to show it. Step forward. Demonstrate excellence.
Publishers are best placed to answer the question, 'what next?', but first they have to ask it. FIW shows we are getting there, but my sense is that this is all now going to become much more important. To return to my opening question, it is not innovation that needs to go mainstream, it is the 'workshop'. It needs to become embedded in everything we do.
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