The Friday book video: Penguin English Library

For my money, Penguin have always led the way in design based creativity in the publishing industry. They are one of the very publishers to have actively cultivated and developed their brand for the reader. Their cover design and visual style can always be relied upon for originality and elegance, particularly with respect to series and backlist publishing. The Great Ideas series (designed by David Pearson) is a perfect example of taking backlist and re-presenting in a fresh original and compelling way (and spawned a number of spin-offs from Penguin and imitations from other publishers). What’s more, this kind of approach is an object lesson in how high design standards can pay off in commercial success.

And now Penguin are revivifying another of their backlist strands with this beautiful piece of online excellence. What I love about this most is that plays to the heart of what I think the core business of the publisher, telling the story of the story in as compelling a manner as is possible. To sell stories, we need to capture reader’s imaginations before we can prise open their wallets.

In this case the story telling is a marriage of old school elegance made possible and amplified creative technology. Brilliant.

And you can see more of the campaign on Facebook.

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Harry Potter and the publishing power shift


To the great interest of book industry watchers the Pottermore shop has gone live. This is, like almost anything related to Harry Potter, very big news indeed. Not so much even for the phenomenon of Potter this time but for the effect it may have on the ecosystem. Excellent appraisals from Mike Shatzkin and Eoin Purcell and the Daily Telegraph here. Mike is convincing on the potential for a change in DRM policy to alter again the balance of the marketplace and I think Eoin is absolutely on the money about the increasing importance of community (and by extension therefore branding) in publishing.

Friday round-up

Lots of interesting things around today but only time for a very quick round-up.

This presentation, from the Economist is really interesting, partially because I recognise in its insights a great deal of my own change in behaviour as a reader, but also because its taking the nature of reader demand really seriously. I think that as publishing starts to fully inhabit a digital approach it will ease back in thinking about digital technology and look much more energetically at how to understand, interact with and reach readers. The truly interesting thing is what this medium does to the behaviour of readers and this ‘Lean Back’ concept is an interesting way of exploring that avenue. And it looks like the flexibility of tablet/smartphone technology is opening up some really interesting opportunities for a much more varied range of reading options.

The Amazon price comparison lash, backlash and counter backlash continues. My view being that price competition, if you decide to use it fulsomely, will inevitably lead you to run such promotions and that ultimately this is in many ways only a supercharged techie version of the (more genteely delivered) John Lewis price promise, ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’. Yes it can be seen as bad sportsmanship but then again others will see that as playing to win and as can be seen from this press release Amazon is absolutely in the game to win. Next year will be pivotal.

Through the keyhole

At this time of year, I tend to get a bit more homesick than usual. There is much to miss in personal terms but professionally, I’ve always loved the exhausting cut and thrust of the book trade at Christmas. So watching the Futurebook conference through the keyhole of twitter made me wish I was in London to experience it. While twitter is great for capturing the headlines, I would love to have seen and heard more of the meat of the discussion.

One element from the reports that has leapt out for me is how publishers are now defining themselves. Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks says that ‘we are no longer a book publisher, we are a publisher’. Stephen Page from Faber went further saying that they are now a business ‘about reading and writing’. This second formulation interests me greatly. I like it because it maintains a continuity with the past, (in my opinion, good publishers have always been in the ‘enhancing the writing and encouraging the reading’ business as opposed to the ‘making paper things’ business), but it allows scope to widen and develop that concept.

This is, I think, an enormously liberating moment for the talented people in publishing businesses to unleash some new ideas that connect writer and reader. If we’ve always been in that business, why not find new ways to excel at it?

Phil Downer from Front of Store was there and he reports here. One further link to share from Michael Wolf at Gigaom. The pace of change would appear to be accelerating.

Love actually

What I find most interesting about James Daunt’s Independent interview is the real bookshop versus internet behemoth narrative. He chose, I’m sure deliberately, to set his comments almost as if it were a morality play with Waterstones as David, Amazon as Goliath. Now of course morality doesn’t really enter into it because neither company is good or bad, they’re just economic actors trying to secure customers.

Over the past decade Amazon has quietly played its hand brilliantly and positioned itself astutely in first the bookselling and now the publishing arena. It has developed a situation (in no small degree through its own action) where the momentum of the market now lies almost overwhelmingly to its advantage. It spotted the digital zeitgeist and has exploited its insights to huge effect.

The crucial step it took was right at the beginning, it seduced its customers and delivered to them with maximum efficiency with a year in, year out consistency at a handy price. So to change the narrative, this has been more about love than morality and Amazon has been an attentive lover, who never forgets a birthday or Christmas.

Waterstone’s is now trying to re-position itself to its core market and I suspect that the purpose of Daunt’s remarks is add a little tribalism back into the Waterstones culture by clearly identifying the target of their endeavour, the ‘serious reader’. These were, of course, Waterstone’s first loves upon which was built the original brand (the romantically described ‘inner-directed heavy book buyer’ as they were known in the mid nineties). It may well be the most effective strategy on offer to them and much as Waterstone’s has tried to appeal to a wider market, it has never felt like a brand designed to do that.

I’m all for a bit of tribalism in a company, it makes you realise that it has a culture and a set of values common to the entire organisation. I also suspect that there may be a touch of the Alex Ferguson brand of gamesmanship in James Daunt, stirring the troops and the pot. He clearly knows how to use publicity to support a brand image and most of the interview demonstrates that he has an instinctive understanding of how to play to an upmarket and locally driven clientele. Creating a kind of insurgent narrative about the enterprise is probably no bad place to begin in terms of winning back a place in the hearts of your customers.

My hunch though is that Amazon successfully wooed this segment long ago and has had a decade to cement its position in Waterstone’s old heartland. It’s infinite, consistent and convenient offer will be hard to beat. So if it is to recapture its once native ground, Waterstone’s will have to re-learn the art of seducing its customers, on price, range, service and even more importantly, sheer coolness. Relying on telling them that they ‘should’ may just simply get a ‘they’re just not that into you’.

Also on this, the technology editor at the Telegraph pushes back and you can see a number of comments over at the Bookseller site.

Update: Having said all that, I’m not sure that this is really cricket.

Cowboys and Zombies

It feels like an age since my last post. Its been a hectic fortnight and I’ve been somewhat distracted, but an equilibrium of sorts has been restored.

Today though its well beyond time for a little light posting, with some recommendations and thoughts.

Sometimes in all the digital brouhaha we forget the power of well-staffed bookshops. Yesterday I was doing my customary ‘in between books’ ramble around Unity Books when proprietor Tilly Lloyd spied me and pounced. The approach began with some seemingly innocuous questions; was I a triple acquarian (wasn’t terribly sure what that meant actually, as far as I know I’m a scorpio)? Did I have a younger brother? How did I feel about westerns? And before I knew it I was the proud possessor of the The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. A book I did not know I needed but am now very much enjoying. Tilly I salute you on a sublime rendition of the art of hand-selling.

Very much enjoying these analyses, from Nils Pratley at The Guardian and Philip Downer, of WH Smith’s performance. Whatever else you may think about it they have a plan and at present it seems to be working. Do you need to be a beloved brand to work?

Over at Idealog there’s a great piece that gives some insight into what the marketing enabled publisher of the future might look like and is supported partly by this piece at Publisher’s Marketplace talking about how shifts in publishing structures.

Peter Brantley’s recent article at Publisher’s Weekly here, is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In the past, we kept our ‘media’ in very separate compartments physically and therefore in many ways mentally. We waited for our favourite TV shows each week, read books in bed or on the tube and listened to the radio in the shed. Each had their place and to some extent that division was a kind of market regulation, they didn’t compete with one another to the fullest of their potential. Now we can carry all of these on one device in our pockets. We can access them when and where we choose and they are directly vying for our (limited) capacity to give them our attention. Peter outlines the issues this raises very well:
And that’s so much more of a problem for all of publishing, really, than just Kobo or B&N, because now the competition is for the customer’s attention across all media, in one device. It means that publishing has to very seriously consider what kind of experiences creative artists can design that will be appealing on highly portable mixed media platforms.
We are witnessing a convergence of media consumption that will shape the way we seek information, inspiration and entertainment in a truly fundamental and Darwinian way.

And to finish, who better to write a Zombie story than Roberto Bolano and not just a story but an animated story. Imagine running this as a serial?

Friday

Steve Jobs in posthumous sales sensation, even in a business he once described as ‘unsalvageable’. Aaron Sorkin to write the screenplay? Extraordinary.

I’ve been a bit off blog this week, but there are a couple of interesting developments that I feel the need to comment on. First of all Kobo has been busy tying up deals with retailers in the UK and Australia but also it would seem finalising plans to become a publisher. Amazon, it would seem has become both an model and a target.

Secondly, much gnashing of teeth has attended the UK OFT decision not to interfere with Amazon’s take-over of the Book Depository. Plenty of comment here and here. Personally, while its obviously an issue for UK bookshops, I wonder whether we might see increased pressure on the Australasian markets. Scribe clearly thinks so by changing its formats in order to reduce its prices. Money quote from Henry Rosenbloom:

Something has to give. We can’t keep pumping out books at prices that seem high by international standards, and that consumers aren’t prepared to pay.

My hugely scientific morning Kindle Count has grown significantly this past few months (today 3 kindles, 1 iPad representing 75% of the people reading on my bus) but not perhaps by as much as Bloomsbury’s ebook sales. 564% over the six months to August.

We are nowhere near an equilibrium point in terms of what will be the eventual ebook share, but I’m certain the speed is picking up and I expect the end point will come much quicker and be a much higher penetration than many think possible.

And on that slightly sombre note this, from the London Book Fair earlier this year is worth another look. Cory Doctorow, Richard Charkin, James Bridle and Andrew Franklin debate the continuing relevance of publishers.

And we should remember that Steve Jobs is watching.