An innovations manager answers your questions

Me at work

I ended up doing a Q&A for the Guardian after I was rude about their publishing coverage. I’ve been rude about it since, but they’ve not asked me again…

As many of you will know, we’re active tweeters at @Guardianbooks. We follow many interesting and funny people and we enjoy taking part in some lively discussions. That’s how we bumped into Alastair Horne tweeting about our review of children’s book apps – although, to be more accurate, he was tweeting about how much he didn’t like our coverage. After contacting him and discovering that he knows a thing or two about apps because he makes them for a living, we invited him to take part in this week’s publishing Q&A to tell us more about apps and answer your questions about developments in the digital publishing industry.

C1aireA asks:
Can you explain what “innovations manager” means. How is it different to “digital publisher”. What is your relationship to CUP’s other editors?
And, finally, how advanced are university publishers compared with others in terms of innovation?

As Innovations Manager at Cambridge University Press, I have two key responsibilities: firstly, I keep up to date with new developments in the worlds of publishing, technology, & education, to ensure that our strategy is informed by an accurate awareness of what’s going on; secondly, I work with editors and developers to prototype new types of product so that we can assess their potential before committing to develop them.

A Digital Publisher would more commonly be responsible for specific digital products from conception to publication; though I have done that in the past – for example, on a cross-curricular product for schools called Race to Learn where we partnered with the Williams Formula One team – I generally play more of an advisory role, particularly in the early stages of projects. I’ve worked closely with editors and publishers across our Academic, Education, and English Language Teaching groups to develop such prototypes and provide guidance on further development.

curly45 asks:
In your opinion should the book publishing industry be taking more of an interest in what journals are doing (since journals all do electronic these days AND make money out of it) or is it enough to package existing books as e-singles/mash up of different book chapters, that sort of thing? Is a type of OA model ever going to move into mainstream academic books for example?

Also what are your thoughts on apps versus mobile web? Both/different/mutally exclusive in a world of limited funds?

The book publishing industry should certainly be looking to see how other, related industries have managed to make a success of digital, rather than fixating solely on the failures of the music industry, as there’s a tendency to do (and I’m as guilty as anyone else of doing this). Obviously there are significant differences between how people use journal articles and how they read, say, fiction, but equally there are considerable differences between how people consume music and how they read books.

Packaging chapters of existing books as e-singles, and producing tailor-made anthologies from chapters taken from existing titles are both steps in the right direction, I think, but they’re both proceeding from the starting-point of an existing print edition; that’s fine for repurposing existing content, but we do need also to be thinking about what new things we can do now that we no longer have to publish, say, a minimum number of pages for a book to be viable. Publishers like Random House, with their Brain Shots series, are doing some very interesting things with shortform content, and this has to be one way forward for the industry.

For Open Access (OA) to work in mainstream academic book publishing, we need to establish a business model that works for all parties. Bloomsbury Academic, for instance, are currently experimenting with a creative commons model that allows people to read the books for free online but are charging for the print edition; it will be very interesting to see how that works out.

Apps have been enormously useful for publishers in that they’ve finally broken down consumers’ reluctance to pay for content online. Since Apple already had the credit card details for anyone who’d ever bought a song from itunes, anyone with an iPhone could buy content quickly and easily without worrying about who they were giving their details to. As a consequence, publishers like the Guardian, for instance, are now able to sell their content online via iPhone and iPad apps, without locking it all up behind a paywall.

With the launch of the Amazon’s Kindle Fire, Apple’s appstore will for the first time have a rival who also has everyone’s credit card details. This means that publishers will have to start taking Android more seriously; until now, actual paid-for sales of Android apps have not generally been at a level to make publishing book apps worthwhile. Developing for two separate platforms can be very costly, though, and so publishers will naturally look to the mobile web, and specifically HTML5, to see if they can develop a single product that will work on both devices. (For those who aren’t familiar with HTML5, it essentially allows an app-like experience for the user within a web browser.)

The other key reason for publishers to want to use HTML5 rather than develop apps is, of course, to get around the rules and restrictions that Apple places (and, presumably, Amazon will place) around their stores: particularly the requirement that publishers pay the store 30% of their revenue. Anyone who wants to do this, however, will lose the benefits that the appstores provide – particularly that ease of payment. It’s not a coincidence that the two most high-profile companies to launch HTML5 versions of their apps – Amazon and the Financial Times – are well-established brands with their own payment mechanisms.

herdingbats asks:
Given that universities are outsourcing their hiring, retention, and promotion decisions to publishers (by means of increasingly complex metrics), those institutions that are now requiring OA posting of articles by faculty (Oberlin, Princeton, etc., in the US; I understand this is ongoing in the UK, too) are now trying get that service for free. How will this situation be resolved? Do the not-for-profit, and perhaps even specifically the university presses once again stand a chance?

As you say, the relationship between university presses and the universities and academics whose research we publish is complicated and symbiotic, and a university press’s role goes well beyond disseminating the results of academics’ research. University presses are certainly under threat – some, sadly, have already closed – and their loss is in nobody’s interests. If institutions require open access posting, then we need to work with them to establish business models that will fulfil their needs whilst still enabling us to survive. This is not going to be easy, but it needs to be done.

I have three questions:

1. Do you think that the e-book market would benefit from a dominant e-book supplier and e-reader, such as Amazon and Kindle, in the way that iTunes and iPods have dominated the music market? Or is the splintering of the market into different reading formats and e-readers a good thing?

2. Who on the high street has most to fear from the growth of digital – the independent bookshop or the mass-market retailer?

3. Digital publishing should allow books to be sold more flexibly, such as by chapters, in the same way iTunes sells tracks as well as albums, but this doesn’t seem to be happening. Is this due due complex and inflexible copyright laws and rights issues, and what can be done to streamline things?

1. I suspect that the rise to dominance of a single ebook supplier, whether Amazon or anyone else, would be the worst possible outcome for both the publishing industry and for readers. The dominance of a single supplier who could dictate terms to publishers (assuming they still existed) and ultimately decide what could be read would be disastrous. The emergence of a single standard ebook format, however, would be a very good thing for both readers and publishers, allowing the former to read what they like wherever they like, and the latter to publish once rather than into a thousand variant formats. I really can’t see it happening any time soon, though.

2. They both have good reason to be afraid, but I’m really not sure which has the most to fear. The mass-market retailer has less to differentiate it from the likes of Amazon, so has good reason to be worried. And yet it does also have the advantages over independent bookshops in terms of scale and the oppportunity to integrate digital into its bookstores in the way that Barnes & Noble have with the Nook. In the UK, it will be interesting to see how the Waterstones ereader fares when it comes out in the spring. Independent bookstores lack those advantages, but can offer community and a personal touch – shops like the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green have done a marvellous job of extending that community online, and the shops that will survive will most likely be the ones that do this.

3. Agreed; partly this will be due to rights and contract issues – when a third-party image appears in a book, for instance, publishers have tended in the past only to license that image for its specific use in publication. Contracts have also tended not to cover such eventualities as selling books by the chapter, and the systems used by publishers weren’t built to deal with such things. All of this is changing; a great many publisher contracts are now much more flexible, and publishers tend to license a wider range of rights than they used to. But it’s going to take time to do this for all of the legacy content that already exists – in the case of Cambridge University Press, we’ve more than 400 years of backlist content to sort out!

DonLinn asks:
How will publishers and libraries sort out a way for ebooks to be lent and publishers/authors to be paid fairly?

I wish I knew the answer to this! What I do know, though, is that libraries are vital to publishers and we need to be working with them rather than against them. Not only do they buy our titles (which always helps), but they also make them visible to other people who might ultimately buy them, and so help generate word-of-mouth sales. It would be also be fascinating to learn more from them about how our books are borrowed.

Establishing a fair payment system that rewards both publishers and authors, without making it impossible for libraries to afford popular titles, is not going to be easy, but it’s absolutely necessary.

LastingLine asks:
How will Amazon’s decision to go into publishing affect the future?

It’s a problem for publishers in a number of ways. Not least of these is the fact that creaming off the most successful authors, whose success derives at least in part from all the efforts publishers have expended, will take money out of the industry that could otherwise be spent on doing the same for other authors.

yasminsul asks:
How seriously do you rate the spectre of online book piracy now that e-books have become so popular? Do you think the publishing industry is better placed (or worse?) than than the music industry to weather these trends in the future?

I think that one of the key forgotten factors in the problems faced by the music industry was that they lost the trust of the consumer. By using the new CD format in the 1980s to double the cost of an album at a stroke, and then to resell music-lovers the music they already owned, record companies broke the bond of trust between themselves and their consumers. As a consequence, when mass piracy became possible with the rise of the mp3 and napster around the turn of the millennium, there was no sense of “fair-play” between consumer and record company to make a potential pirate think twice about pirating a record.

I don’t think the publishing industry has, thankfully, lost the trust of bookbuyers yet. We need to be very careful, though, as we’re not explaining very effectively as yet that the cost of VAT on ebooks more than outweighs any savings on manufacture and distribution.

SketchesbyBoz asks:
Do you feel that models such as unbound and kickstarter will introduce more diversity in terms of what’s published? As in, will readers have more choice? Will those models (kickstarter et al) still be here in five years time? Or will they be replaced by something else? That’s about three questions in one there…

I think there’s certainly potential there for crowd-sourcing models to create diversity: I fear, though, that it may be significant that the two successes Unbound have had so far have been for already-established authors (Terry Jones and Tibor Fischer). I hope they’ll be as successful with unknown authors and apparently uncommercial products, but we’ll have to wait and see on that.

MikkysGel asks:
Can digital product development close gaps in learning facilities/opportunity between students from and attending schools in poorer and more affluent areas?

I certainly think that there’s potential here, but there are also risks; the key issue is ensuring that students in less affluent areas have access to such resources. In addition to the resources provided by schools there are, for instance, a number of excellent free educational resources out there which have the potential to open up learning to the less well-off, such as the Khan Academy; if you don’t have a computer or access to the internet at home, though, then they may be as closed off to you as private tuition. We need to ensure that the less well-off have equal access to such resources, or we’ll actually be widening the divide, instead of closing it.

JustaWoman asks:
Feedback from our recent FutureBook survey showed that 67%+ of publishers think that the book business isn’t re-skilling fast enough to cope with the changes due to digital. None of this works without a well-skilled workforce, does it? How can publishing adapt?

Publishing as an industry has traditionally had a very slow turnover of staff, as most of the people who worked in it viewed it as a life-long vocation rather than as a step on a ladder. This has had considerable advantages for the industry in the past, not least in keeping salaries at a manageable level, but it’s becoming a problem now that new skills are needed: the industry simply isn’t recruiting people in enough numbers to get those skills into the workforce.

Publishers need to be training their existing staff to take on these new skills as a matter of urgency; they also need to bear in mind that the skills they need right now won’t necessarily be those they need in five years’ time, so they need to be recruiting and promoting people who are adaptable, who “get digital” and will be able to take on those future skills.

Of course, as publishing staff become more digitally-skilled, they’ll also become more appealing to those recruiting for other industries, so publishers will have to pay more to keep them. This is going to have a significant effect on their bottom line.

foxtrotyankee asks:
Publishing staff becoming digitally skilled would help the paper book industry to a level, but I’d guess only to a level. I wonder how many print publishers would say they’d be happy to jack in the whole paper market and go digital?

Certainly, a number of magazine publishers are making the decision to go digital-only. For mainstream print book publishers, I suspect that the first step will be to set up some digital-only lists – as many are doing – and see how they go first of all. Print still makes up the majority of publishers’ income at the moment, and they’re not going to give that up just yet…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s