In a post titled Why There’s No Innovation In The Publishing Industry, Nate Hoffelder, founder of digital publishing news blog, The Digital Reader, speaks about “the general level of arch-conservatism that infests book publishing.” The industry, says Hoffelder, “never met a new idea that it didn’t try to smother at birth.” Ouch! While that may be a tad too harsh, that the book publishing industry needs to do some soul-searching and innovate is an accepted fact. ‘Adapt or die’ has been the mantra whenever new ideas have threatened the old guard, and it’s this response that the industry needs to have when faced with the threat from consumer-centric apps like Wattpad and Tablo.
Like magazine publishing, which has increasingly transitioned to a digital-first or social-first business model to stay afloat, book publishers need to not just go digital, but also find innovative ways in which to do so. Print book publishers did go digital, in that they started offering ebooks, but there has been very little innovation beyond that. In an interview just last month, the CEO of Hachette, Arnaud Nourry said, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience. We, as publishers, have not done a great job going digital. We’ve tried. We’ve tried enhanced or enriched ebooks – didn’t work. We’ve tried apps, websites with our content – we have one or two successes among a hundred failures. I’m talking about the entire industry. We’ve not done very well.” The rise and popularity of apps like Wattpad, Tablo, Draft2Digital, Bookfunnel, etc. can be attributed to such circumstances: the inability of the print book publishing to innovate and the limitations of the ebook format. It would be easy to vilify “consumer-facing” apps as sounding the death knell for traditional publishing, but if one thinks about it, these apps were born out of a deficit the old industry could not fulfill. I see them as an evolution of the print book industry, rather than a detriment. Indeed, even these newfangled applications are not invincible. One need only read Harrison Kitteridge’s lengthy spiel to know about that. While he concedes that “author-services is a burgeoning and incredibly lucrative consequence of the self-publishing movement,” he also maintains that “no one has really managed to scale the model.” According to him, it’s when someone finds a way to marry and scale Wattpad and Kindle Direct Publishing that the traditional book publishing industry will truly be on shaky ground.
Instead of waiting for the inevitable, which may or may not (but likely will) happen, book publishers need to pursue collaborative innovation with the people that are into the “consumer-facing” and author-services digital businesses. These companies – by virtue of being outside the print publishing setup – can think out of the box and explore ways of sustaining the business. Another way the book industry can do this, many think, is by “embracing a startup mindset”. This would involve having a dedicated team that, instead of being overwhelmed by the daily demands of book production, does nothing but research and development, an aspect many traditional book publishers don’t invest in, but which can actually find ways to take the industry into newer, fresher directions. Bestselling author James Patterson tinkered with the novel by coming up with “bookshots”: 150-paged shorter novels. Similarly, cookbooks have been reinvented by having electronic versions which feature grocery lists, timers and videos. Of course, social media is a behemoth publishers can’t afford to ignore. Until and unless they generate content that is interactive and participatory, publishers are going to have a tough time riding the crest of digital publishing. To that end, may be publishers ought to think about accepting and integrating not just the Ubers of publishing but also potentially develop a Facebook for publishing too.