The Future of Publishing – never open a story with the weather. But this is Glasgow!

By Anna Doyle
03 Dec 2018

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It was a cold, dark wet and windy night in the heart of Glasgow when rain drenched people from across Scotland gathered to see into the future of publishing at the BIMA/TRC event …. That’s me failing to implement a key rule of writing, never start with the weather. Mind you Stuart Cosgrove broke the rule too and achieved great acclaim and sales for his soul trilogy (I think his sales will enjoy a little spike after tonight).

In fact it seemed to me that our fabulous panel of speakers had many stories about breaking rules and pushing the envelope which I guess is what a successful future is all about.

The panel was expertly moderated by Jenny Todd, Non-Executive Director, Sandstone Press, who had a wealth of experience to bring to the Q&A.

The first session was led by Albert Hogan, Director – Group Marketing, Audience & Digital Development at Penguin Random House and Nathan Fulwood, Co-Founder, CreateFuture.

Albert and Nathan shared the journey Penguin books has gone through to continue to reach new audiences, to flex with human behaviours and adapt to new technologies.

A bit about books and Penguin:

– Penguin publish 2.2k books a year in the UK market alone, boasts 23 Man Booker Prize Winners and over 70 Nobel Laureates. 1 in 4 books sold globally is published by Penguin.

– Penguin defines its drivers through its authors, audiences, industry and creative responsibility

– While print still has strong sales, ebooks are levelling and audio is growing

– 50% of all books are sold online

Albert’s challenge was to protect and grow this established brand with a strong ethos and identity in a world that is embracing video. Prediction: in 2021 82% of all internet traffic will be video. What does this mean for books?

It was time for Penguin to leap into video but not let go of any of the values so intertwined with the brand. Partnering with CreateFuture on a 5 day sprint process (book published by Penguin) to collaboratively and creatively problem solve. The end result was a brand new way of engaging with new and existing audiences based on the underlining principle “make books the answer at the heart of every interesting discussion”. They achieved this with principles and goals using a well-structured and proven ideation process to co-create 31 ideas against those principles.

The approach is captured in a three tier pyramid:

Hygiene – mass produced content addressing user needs

Hub – scheduled recurring content series

Hero – one off events

Albert concluded by explaining they needed to think more like a TV production company:

Formats not channels

Series not standalones

Pilot not commission

At the centre of this new innovative approach remained a core, long standing rule of Penguin’s engagement with its community: Give; Give; Give; Ask.

We moved from books to magazines and comics with a presentation led by Kirsten Morrison, Head of Digital at DC Thomson, exploring how a traditional publishing company can use data to create new audiences and revenue streams.

Although a different kind of publishing house DC Thomson shares many of Penguin’s attributes – a business steeped in tradition and brand values but, despite its size and heritage, having the appetite and agility to flex and change. A great example of this is Dennis the Menace becoming the face of their “kids first” brand consultancy. Kirsten outlined how the economics of publishing have changed, creating the need to pivot the business, due to factors such as: ad blocking; fake news; programmatic buying; dominance of duopoly; digital marketing; publishers’ share is down. Resonating with Albert and Nathan, Kirsten also referred to the changes in consumer behaviours and how you can use a trusted brand and a dynamic business strategy to turn these challenges into opportunities. For Kirsten data is key.

“we are following a data centric strategy allowing high value content production targeted at smaller niche audiences”.

Kirsten explained how her team of 26, with data at the core of what they do, delivered on new strategy to create new audiences and new products, using the valuable data they have around customer behaviours and interests. She illustrated this with the Gin Kin case study. With almost no budget to test a theory, Kirsten’s team created a new product: the Gin Kin, built through a four step circular process:

Find an audience interest – look for trends and sizeable segments

Create content to attract – Gin tag and SEO content

Isolate and target audience – around content they are interested in

Action the data – build and monetise audience

Kirsten then broke these four tenants down into more detail, illustrating how the strategy was implemented across print and online to create a blended revenue model with excellent returns on minimal investment. A few essential rules were shared:

– The journey starts with data

– Take a single customer view, truly understand your audience

– Don’t just put online what is in print.

With proof of theory established the way is paved for many new pivots in the DC Thomson portfolio.

We travelled from data driven innovation to instinct with a fascinating presentation from the ultimate raconteur, Stuart Cosgrove, sharing the journey of self-publishing. Picking up on the theme from Albert and Nathan that “the book is the end of the discussion”, Stuart shared his long time love of soul music and his ambition to write about the evolution of soul music against the back drop of civil rights, Martin Luther King and the emergence of the US secret state. The end result is his trilogy: Detroit 67; Memphis 68 and Harlem 69.

Perhaps not with quite the same data set and segmentation as Kirsten but a strong driving force and self belief that his product was right Stuart took the choice to self publish because he found the potential publishers, while positive, he felt were providing feedback for which he could see no proof. That said Stuart asserted that the road of self publishing is lonely and is fuelled by self belief and determination.

To market the books online Stuart noted that Amazon only allow six search words so getting these right is key. For example using “Supreme” led to almost exclusively to literature on law and order not The Supremes. Another challenge is the categorisation not just of the words but of the literature. Stuart saw his book as a social commentary but sellers would list it under music. Again this resonated with discussion points raised from the Penguin case study.

Finally, Stuart talked about event marketing of books and how that scene has definitely changed. The book launches with a glass of chardonnay in a book store are long gone and now your book is more likely to be aligned to an event that links to the theme of your writing rather than the writing being an end in itself. Often the book and the event might be a package sold together. Again this resonates with Kirsten’s contention that you look for the interest first and Albert’s point that the book is the end of the discussion.

Many points of communication and marketing were raised by Stuart and there was certainly much more to discover (we only touched on the Netflix factor) but at the root of it all was an excellent trilogy with a fascinating story to tell.

Following from Stuart is quite a challenge but Brendan Miles , Digital Business Director, The List provided an engaging and insightful presentation bringing us back from soul music but staying in the field of events. With over 751 issues behind them Brendan was able to assert that print still works well for The List and is part of the future, but like Kirsten, data is leading them into new areas of commerce transforming them from a pure publications company to a data business.

The List has been able to create opportunities from changes in the economics of publishing (reference Kirsten) where it has caused many papers problems. Newspapers need to be everything to everyone but with contracting budgets how does that remain achievable? Brendan referenced one large national paper previously with a team of 16 arts correspondents, now only having two. This creates a vacuum that The List can fill. The List has two million unique users on its website there to spend money specifically on events, creating a great space for advertising.

However, there are challenges. Collecting event data is a hefty job: dates shift; venues change; and artists drop out. After the event has passed the data is of no interest to its end users. But thanks to Ed Sheeran a light bulb moment occurred at The List and they embarked upon the journey of realising how valuable their data was – and not just to event attendees.

There is a secondary industry around events: accommodation; food; further entertainment so if a big name is coming to your town, as a local business you need to know early so you can take your slice of the visitor revenue (eg: hotel rooms price flexing). But there is a whole bigger picture too: police forces; emergency services; refuse collection; sat nav planning. The List has all the data to help feed into these services avoiding traffic jams before they even happen, ensuring clean streets and importantly services being on hand because they know the likelihood of incidents is about to rise.

Brendan was clear, like his fellow presenters, that the original ethos at the core of the business will continue to drive them but new innovations will ensure their continued relevance and value. Print is not dead but, Brendan stated, as a business they need to evolve while maintaining where they came from.

In short, it was a fantastic night of insights and storytelling – all that was missing was a crackling fireside, armchairs and a few more hours of time as each story was so rich in content and hugely entertaining that you just did not want anyone to stop.

A huge thank you to our fabulous speakers who generously shared so many insights, to the PPA Scotland for supporting this event and to TRC for partnering on this event with us (hopefully the first of many).

Follow our amazing speakers:

Albert Hogan: @alberthogan

Nathan Fulwood: @kidcamel

Kirsten Morrison: @KirstenMorr

Stuart Cosgrove: @Detroit67Book

Brendan Miles: @Bboy1975


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