Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Data and innovation discussed at Digital Book World 2017

The importance of data and innovation were the takeaways from this year’s Digital Book World, reports Hardie Grant Books managing director Roxy Ryan.

At Digital Book World in New York earlier this year, many questions were posed to panels, audiences and publishing experts on the state of publishing and bookselling now. Expanding their focus on digital publishing, DBW posed the question: ‘What next for the book industry?’

According to both DBW chair Ted Hill and Macmillan CEO John Sargent, what’s most important is a passion for books and stories—in any form. The technology may have changed but readers’ desire for long-form entertainment is undiminished; we just have to work harder to get their attention.

Certainly now a fear of ebooks seems quaint in a world fixated on social media, videos, subscription TV, free content across the internet, and global businesses that are content creator, manufacturer, retailer and subscription service all in one. So whether bookseller or publisher, establishing your credentials and making yourself indispensable to your audience is crucial.

In a mature digital market like the US, much can be learnt from experience with ebooks and Amazon. For the first time since 2012, physical book growth outperformed ebooks in 2016, but as ever, pricing is the biggest factor in ebook sales, and a move to agency pricing for publishers saw a decline across many genres, particularly nonfiction and juvenile.

The flatline in ebook sales saw many point to the resurgence of print books and independent booksellers in the US. But closer inspection shows that almost all growth in print books was in online bookshops, with bricks-and-mortar bookshop sales flat.

So ebooks may have found their market, and perhaps a swing to print book sales will continue—but reading on smart phones continues to grow and we can only assume there will be more technology to change reading habits to come. Not to mention the increased presence and dominance of the four technology, retail and entertainment giants: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple.

So while the pace of change in platforms and delivery may have slowed somewhat over the past few years, in its place is a rapidly changing political, economic and retail market where, as Hill explained, the only certainty for the book industry in the near future is uncertainty.

So what to do in an ever-changing, ever-uncertain market? What steps can publishers and booksellers take to make the most of the (at times overwhelming!) amount of technology on offer to help drive publishing and assist sales and marketing strategies?

Data, marketing and innovation

At DBW it was a mix of data, marketing and innovation that seemed most relevant, with an emphasis on a willingness to embrace cultural and workplace change to facilitate it.

Publishing will always be instinctual—but good data can help back up assumptions and drive smart decisions. In a world where discovery is more important than ever but harder to obtain, using the right tools to help readers find your books has to be a priority. The imperative for publishers to create metadata that speaks to consumers rather than just booksellers is a mindset change for many, but an important one.

The marketing mix is changing and much is related to data. Millennial preference for online peer reviews to assist in purchasing decisions is growing rapidly, necessitating a change in mindset from a focus on media reviews to encouraging peer-led conversations to drive sales. This key demographic will shape the way businesses talk to customers and how readers discover authors and books.

Detailed profiles of audiences are more available to us than ever, and many of these tools are free—via Facebook and Google in particular. Social and digital advertising enables us to trial and experiment without big budgets and make smarter, more informed decisions on where best to spend precious dollars.

Innovation is often easier said than done but there are many ways to look at how to deliver new products to existing audiences. For publishers and booksellers to remain relevant, they must be able to deliver new formats and products to readers and non-traditional readers alike.

By and large, ebooks have not delivered on their innovation potential and to date subscription services have not worked in the way they have transformed television. But print and ebook can’t be the only two ways to deliver long-form entertainment to readers, and publishers and booksellers have to innovate to remain part of the landscape in the face of enormous and growing competition.

A final focus of DBW was facilitating culture and workplace change in order to make new ideas possible, and in particular to welcome millennials, who will be crucial to digital transformation internally. Looking at habits and productivity was also cited as important—it can be hard to let go of established processes but necessary to establish new ones.

The takeaways:

  • The importance data, which should be woven into every facet of publishing—particularly in marketing and identifying audiences.
  • Innovation and experimentation, which will help the book industry remain relevant to increasingly fickle consumers with more choice than ever for their scant leisure time.
  • A passion for stories. Don’t lose sight of the reason why we do what we do—a love of books, stories and connecting the right story with the right reader.


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