Publishing within a particle accelerator: the ePublishing Innovation Forum 2011

Last week's ePublishing Innovation Forum may have been aimed at the “information industry”, but the issues addressed often applied across the entire publishing sector. Speakers were united in their acknowledgement that this is a volatile time for our industry: Macmillan's Timo Hannay likened the effect of technology on publishing to the CERN particle accelerator: familiar building blocks were colliding at high speed to create new forms (some of whom, he might have added, might prove equally short-lived).

One key theme, as at the London Book Fair Digital Conference, was the increasing importance of mobile: though tablets were predicted to outsell netbooks by the end of the year (according to figures from Deloitte), sales of both would continue to be dwarfed by smartphones. With smartphone users spending an average of 5 hours per day on their devices, publishers were more than ever expected to ensure their content was both available and optimised for mobile.

The importance of knowing your audience was emphasised repeatedly. The Telegraph's Julian Sambles began his session with a video showcase for an iPad app that made impressive use of multimedia and the device's connectivity. As the film ended, however, he revealed that the app had never been developed. The Telegraph's initial iPad app – built primarily, Sambles told us, as “something we could learn from”, a means of capturing user data – had revealed that their readers didn't want such functionality. Consequently, the Telegraph app contains only a selection of the content from the paper, and – just like the print edition – is updated only once each day: according to Sambles, readers like the fact that editors choose the content for them, and that it is finite; it has what Audra Martin of the Economist was later to describe as “finishability”.

Listening to Sambles, I couldn't help feeling that the organisers had missed a trick by not putting alongside him a representative from the Guardian, whose iPhone app differs from the iPad version of the Telegraph in almost every detail, updating frequently, and pulling content not only from that day's paper but also the website and the paper's archives. It would have been instructive to have explored how audience research had occasioned both these very different approaches since, as Martin noted in her own presentation, understanding customer behaviour is the key to everything from developing a successful product, to getting advertisers, and finding the right price point.

Pricing was – inevitably – another recurring theme. With ebook prices under downward pressure from authors self-publishing at 99c, retailers keen to offset the cost to buyers of their electronic devices, and readers unaware that – within the UK at least – any savings on manufacturing costs are more than outweighed by the imposition of VAT at 20% on digital formats, publishers who successfully maintain print prices for digital products are rare. Though there were examples of such publishers among the speakers (the Economist, Martin told us, charged similarly for both print and online subscriptions), useful lessons were in shorter supply: Harlequin's Tim Cooper, dubbed “digital publishing's most inspiring figure” at this year's FutureBook awards, was encouragingly bullish yet disappointingly unedifying in his statement that “Harlequin ebooks sell for the same price as print, and it seems to work for us.”

The Q&A session with Cooper that closed proceedings was nonetheless one of the conference highpoints. He began by predicting that ebook sales would reach a tipping point of 50% within the next five years, hitting 80% very shortly after, at which point some “harsh decisions” would have to be taken about the economic viability of print. Harlequin's success in digital, he added, had been occasioned by the fact that they'd not dipped their toes in the digital water but had instead taken the plunge of digitising their entire frontlist; by the end of this year, he said, their complete backlist will have followed suit. Such responsiveness to change was vital, Cooper said: successful publishers could no longer rely on implementing five year plans; instead, plans and targets should be updated several times a year. This conference will have had several of its attendees hastily updating theirs.


Mobile on a sofa or in bed

Carl Robinson's picture

{Reposting - something seems to have gone awry - apologies if this appears twice}

As a fellow attendee, I would like to compliment Alastair on his write-up - as Andrew says, he makes it sound more interesting and useful than the twitter stream. Sadly, I think the twitter stream was probably more accurate overall - of the 19 sessions, Alastair really has picked out the best. I think the conference lacked focus and could have been organised, perhaps, around themes (pricing, delivery, workflows etc) - the range of talks and their timing felt a bit scattergun.

That said, I do think events like this generate thinking and comment - in part that's what they are there for.

I was struck buy a mild revelation (if that's even possible) around the usage of mobile technology. I think the phrase 'at the point of convenience' was used quite a lot. It turns out that that point is very often not 'mobile' but stationary on a mobile device - the sofa, in bed, at the breakfast table. It came across most strongly that some of our content decisions might be going awry if we assume that people really do access the internet - and digital content (news, education or otherwise) - while on the move. Turns out what they're really after is quick access when they feel like it, and to (surprisingly for me) 'static' content, as if it were the morning newspaper - hence both the Telegraph's and the Economist's choices over how to deliver content to smartphones and tablets.

Makes me wonder what other mild revelations I might need in my quest to become a better digital publisher....

Sofa? So good.

Alastair Horne's picture

Thanks for the compliment, Carl. I share your reservations about the conference as a whole; of the 19 sessions, the ones I mentioned in the article were by far the most rewarding, so far as I was concerned (excepting the Global Grid for Learning one, which I very much enjoyed but the writing up of which would have presented a slight conflict of interest since they're owned by my employers).

As for the desire for "static" content, I do wonder how representative the Telegraph's and Economist's audiences is on that front. Obviously they've both done some impressive research into what their particular readerships want, but - as I suggested in my report - it would have been interesting to see whether the Guardian, say, has equally sound research justifying its very different approach. (I've no axe to grind either way - I'd just be curious to see how widespread this desire for a more print-like product is...)

Invoking the five year rule

andrewspong's picture

Your review makes the event sound a lot more interesting than the Twitter feed, which made dreary reading, your own concise contributions (and those of one or two others) aside.

One thing that strikes me as particularly off-beam however is Cooper's having invoked the 'five year rule' (everything, it seems, is always going to have happened in five years) bearing in mind that (Kindle) ebooks sales are now outselling print via that reliable industry barometer, Amazon (see

A tipping point in five years? I'd suggest it happened five months ago.

Those that are best at providing content digitally have already tipped. Publishers need to consider the possibility that if their lists aren't behaving similarly, it may be a function of their tardiness in offering digital content in formats that readers want to buy rather than a lack of appetite on their customers' part for digital mediums.

As a self-aggrandizing coda: I Storified some thoughts along these lines in 'Publishing and revolution by change iteration' over the weekend here



"in five years time we could be walking round a zoo"

Alastair Horne's picture

Thanks for commenting, Andrew.

I'm inclined to take a middle line between you and Tim Cooper on the tipping point. In the information industry, we may well already be there; in trade, I really don't think so. Firstly, Amazon press releases are so painstakingly scrubbed clean of any concrete figures that it's impossible to tell what they really signify. (There are suspicions, for instance, that that 105% figure is actually comparing US sales of print to nearly global sales of ebooks, since most of amazon's ebooks are sold via the .com site rather than the national stores.) Secondly, amazon still only accounts for, if I remember correctly, only about 20% of print sales, but presumably a much higher proportion of ebook sales.

I'd therefore give more weight to the figures that publishers themselves are reporting, which are mostly under ten per cent. (Harlequin are actually ahead of the curve on this.) And on that basis, five years seems more plausible, though it may well happen a little more quickly in practice.

(You may well be right about the causes of this situation, though....)

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