by Andrew Lockley

The sky is falling in, if you’re working in the publishing industry.  We’re seeing a revolution comparable to the coming of the steam train.  Publishers are well aware of this, and are keen to maneuver more successfully than the music industry did before it got overtaken like a stagecoach racing Stephenson’s Rocket. I went to Digital Minds, to see how the world of books is coping with this new-fangled technology.

Unlike in music, there’s no transitional format for books.  We don’t load CDs into our ebook readers, and there’s no consequential protection from piracy.  In certain markets, piracy is already rife, because there’s no legal channel for people to buy.  In other cases, certain titles aren’t available.  Harry Potter print format books have been scanned, OCR’d and distributed illegally online.  This, and other information I picked up at this conference, showed me how fast everything is changing. I learned how the book publishing industry is trying to cope, following the guiding light from the various sectors which have already been thoroughly smashed up by the coming of this digital revolution.  It’s usually easier and cheaper to learn from someone else’s mistakes than it is to invent your own blunders from scratch, so the book publishing industry got up early last Sunday and traipsed to The London Book Fair ‘Digital Minds’ conference to learn these lessons. This conference was designed to help book publishers avoid the pitfalls – and also showcase the latest technology into the bargain.

I couldn’t mention all the speakers, but I’m sure you’d have been interested to hear from Charlie Redmayne (@Charliered66), who unveiled some of the secrets of the Harry Potter brand, in particular the rationale behind the new Pottermore online spinoff. This shows how a print brand can gain new life in the digital age, without simply turning into a carbon copy ebook. The brand’s engagement is quite simply amazing: 97% of readers view ALL the content. Beat that!

One talk which gave some deep market insight was Mark Oliver from Oliver and Ohlbaum (@OliverOhlbaum). Their talk went deep into the industry’s numbers, and made some bold calls. My key takeaways were simple: volumes up, revenues down. I’m always a bit skeptical of predictions, especially about the future, but this seemed a fairly sensible maxim to plan by.

Of particular interest to me were of course the startups. First, a personal note: Normally I’m very secretive about the clients I work with, but Flooved have very generously given me a public reference on my personal website. I’m pleased to see they’re making real progress with their ballsy play into the textbook market. When you’re taking on Apple, you’re either brilliant or insane – or maybe a little of both. But yes, Flooved are doing just that, competing with one of the biggest brands in the world to open up digital access to textbooks. The charismatic and dashing Hamish Brocklebank might just carry it off, if his bold pitch was anything to go by. He certainly won’t be easy to forget.

Anobii, whilst not formally pitching as a startup, are working in the book discovery space. Making books social and discoverable is their key mission, so you can get recommendations from friends online, just as easily as you can offline. Having worked closely on a similar project in a different vertical, I can understand just how powerful the idea of creating an online ‘bookshelf’ which is recommendation-driven can be. With a clear route to monetisation, this is definitely one to watch.

Booktrack (@Booktrk) is an idea which I found ludicrous and fascinating all at once. Simply put, it’s soundtracks for books. Bonkers, but intriguing. They have the technology to work out where you’re reading up to, and then they insert appropriate music and atmospherics (think thunder) into the story. An immersive new dimension to reading, or a bloody annoying gimmick? You decide…

Padify (@PadifyApp) were a promising startup, solving the pain point of typesetting and layout for the ebook publisher. They aim to take care of the tedious aspects of formatting and distribution to the wide range of readers on the market. By simplifying the process, they intend to save costs for publishers, and make the ebook market even more accessible for writers. I love slightly-boring utilities, because they make very interesting amounts of money. My eyes are firmly on this concept.

One of the non-startup speakers who really grabbed me was Kerry Wilkinson (@Kerrywk). He’s beaten the publishers at their own game, by rocking up as a rookie author with a day job and storming the Amazon bestseller lists. His secret is simple and he shared it – take advantage of the platform. Don’t waste your readers’ time with silly wasted pages at the beginning of the book. Let them get stuck straight in to decent content, so you use the 10% free content to the max. Make the free section amazingly engaging, end it on a cliffhanger, and price the first book in a series at peanuts. That way you drive sales using some good, old-fashioned internet marketing techniques. These clever ruses improve your conversions, rather than relying on the even older-fashioned publishing industry habits which are usually based around spending large amounts of time and money on shouty marketing. Move with the times if you want to survive. This guy has a seriously fresh perspective and a down to earth style, so please do go and see him if you get chance.

I’ll leave you with one little gem of information which I heard from a speaker, and which amused me and made me think: ebooks have driven a whole new genre, or at least unleashed it – ‘mommy porn’. This is the new buzzword for books which are too racy to be seen reading in print, but can easily be concealed from prying eyes on a Kindle. Targeted squarely at women, it’s an important new trend. As Avenue Q memorably said: the internet is for porn. It’s interesting to see how this rule holds true to ebooks, too.

The conference was held at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, right by Parliament.  The facilities were nice, and lunch was hearty, healthy and tasty.  There was plenty of space, as seating was ‘awards ceremony’ style, so people weren’t crammed into rows. It was (almost) worth me getting up on a Sunday for!