To round off 2013 on the Ingenta blog, we spoke to Random House UK's Digital Publisher Dan Franklin about the past, present and possibly future for digital publishing. Dan was last seen on the panel of our What is a Publisher Now? panel at Frankfurt Book Fair, where he used the platform to warn publishers away from the idea that rising sales of eBooks indicated that digital publishing was a 'solved' problem.
We caught up with Dan to clarify a few of the points he made at Frankfurt and ask him what he thought digital publishing in 2014 would look like.
PT - This year at Frankfurt you said that the trade publishing market had done well to replicate the physical market for books in print. Do you think there was ever a chance that trade publishers would not have succeeded in that aim?
DF - Well, anything could have happened. There was a point 5 years ago where the field was wide open for all kinds of technology companies to get involved with books. And don’t forget, it was very exciting when the iPad launched (to take one example) and books were part of the puzzle, or the possibilities of how Google could break books open with their search capabilities. Books never had a Napster too, which was extremely helpful.
PT - You then went on to say there was a “disappointing” aspect to the way publishers had pursued digital success by replicating their existing market. What did you mean by that?
DF - I regret saying this because it’s not exactly what I meant. I should have said there was a risk that publishers might sit back and put their feet up after this digital replication, and that was a risk, and it would then be a disappointing position to take – my comment anticipated this attitude. It’s obviously a gross simplification to say that digital market has replicated the physical because it hasn’t (!) but the metaphor of the book as a unit of sale is intact. I’m not disappointed that publishers and a large number (and growing constituency) of indie authors have largely sought to maintain the value of ‘books’. I spoke to a manager of a really prominent musician who was comparing how music is now reduced to ‘files’ and ‘MP3s’ in the industry and with consumers, but the bound unit of content and the signifier of (e)books has remained intact.
PT - You also alluded to some publishers “treading water” in their attitude to digital publishing. Do you think some publishers think they’ve ‘cracked’ digital and no longer need to innovate and what are the risks of adopting that kind of attitude?
DF - I think the cabal of digital experts in publishing – and the conversation around digital - has imploded in 2013. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing! The signs are everywhere if you work in digital in the industry that we’ve reached an impasse where a lot of people involved in the transition have seen the ebook market reach a substantial and mature position and are saying (often to each other) ‘what next?!’ There’s always going to be companies that are running to keep up, others that grow complacent but 2014 is fascinating because now it’s wide open.
PT - It’s often said that the real disruptions to the publishing industry will come from outside the industry – particularly from technology companies – but you make the point that historically the publishing industry has done a good job of disrupting itself. Do you think disruptive forces always have to come from the ‘outside’ and do they always have to work in opposition?
DF - Trade publishing is a quirky, awkward and unpredictable industry where everyone is super-passionate and understand that they’ve just got on board a rollercoaster and it’s time to take the ride. We’re getting smarter about how and what we publish, but the industry is constantly disrupting itself – a book is a disruptive act. Here’s the thing about tech companies, brand agencies etc framing work in terms of problems and solutions: what problem does a novel solve? What problem did STONER solve? None! (OK, you might say it encouraged literacy, helped classic backlist, invigorated passionate booksellers etc.) But like the best publishing it took something to a person and said, ‘read this, you’ll love it – we believe in it.’ Kanye West said in his interview with Zane Lowe, ‘I don’t know what I want.’ Being a person is not knowing what you want, (you live your life to find out!), and yet publishing introduces experiences and knowledge to people all the time. Outsiders coming to the industry see opportunities in it, and publishing’s a bit like Twin Peaks – it seems to be a relatively normal industrial town but you scratch the surface and it’s very complicated, and often pleasingly weird, populated by an amazing array of creative characters, as well as some sinister forces. I actually think this can be tough for the more conservative-minded interlopers.
PT - You said that the good news about publishing is that it now has a platform from which to innovate. How would you describe that platform?
DF - I meant that the shock of the new has been absorbed and to some extent *normalized*. There are workflows and attitudes towards digital publishing and particularly marketing which are increasingly commonplace and for me represent a foundation or platform to build on and out from, or adjacent to. This could also be the ‘burning platform’ of Stephen Elop’s infamous Nokia memo, which Stephen Page invoked again recently. I think that’s the bit about complacency – being sure to keep busy and pro-active in exploring the possible futures for the industry.
PT - And to follow on from your point about replicating the physical business in digital form, will the next wave of innovation result in publishers producing content that looks and feels less like a physical book
DF - Yes. The book is still core, but already publishers are broadening out into film, games, services like creative writing courses, all types of digital experiences. We’re in a period where we can take a creative lead in fields we’ve never participated in, and collaborate with other media organisations, and other types of organisations and creatives entirely. People like books – they’re going nowhere, but there’s also potentially a generation coming up which has very challenging attitudes towards ‘digital content’ and we need to be ready.
PT - Do you think projects like The Black Crown Project which you were involved in earlier this year point towards a general trend in innovative publishing, or will these always be outliers?
I think they are explorations of possible futures that I really want us all to be exploring and trying to outdo each other. I learnt that the audience for games is extremely open-minded, literate and willing to try something a book publisher puts out in the games space. Most importantly, I learnt not to describe the format of the thing until I was blue in the face, but talk about the experience, story and emotional impact as you would any work of fiction. When you search ‘Black Crown Project’ on Twitter this Tweet from the Futurebook Innovation Workshop is always high in the results that says: ‘Dan Franklin tries to describe the new Black Crown project: "It's unwieldy. It's a web based narrative gaming experience.”’ I really hate seeing that tweet because it’s a flag of how I should have focused more on the story initially. If people are hooked by that, they’ll roll with the mechanics of consuming and interacting with it.
PT - In another of your comments you warned against publishers getting too reliant on the use of algorithms. How would you describe the limits of the use of algorithms?
DF - Algorithms are great! But humans are extremely complex. I love doom metal music, but I only really love the first two Candlemass albums, mainly because the production is too dry on the third. How does an algorithm know that?! But someone can tell me to listen to some trap hip-hop because they see an attitude in it I might like and ‘boom!’ that’s a nexus of influence and personal recommendation that’s unbelievably powerful because it’s totally unexpected. But like I say the artificial intelligence that might drive recommendation is sure to get very sophisticated very fast, but it’s not quite there yet. Our CEO at PRH said he wants us to ‘crack the code of discoverability’. If your CEO throws you a bone like that, it’s a good idea to go chew on it.
PT - You also alluded to a future where successful publishers become consumer destinations in their own right on the grounds that they sit on a “goldmine of quality content”. To do that won’t publishers need to develop a whole new platform in addition to the ones that already exist?
I think actually we think in very absolutist terms and about magic bullet solutions in this case - one technology solutions - which might restrict creative strategies. It is the great conundrum that publishers have found it tricky to ‘surface’ the incredible repositories they have. Authors and license-holders are Kings. You’re crazy starting a business in publishing unless you’re buying licenses. Let’s use them for the benefit of those authors in new ways! This is something I want to focus on in 2014.
PT - As you said, building an “interface” between publishers and consumers is the key to cracking this. Do you think publishers can achieve this with their existing, enduring set of skills or do they need to learn to become booksellers too?
DF - I don’t think it’s necessarily about learning another trade, as you’ve expressed it. It’s about focusing rigorously on authors and people who read and might read in the future and creating ways to provide for them, directly or indirectly or whatever way we can imagine that suits them. We have amazing core competencies as businesses but like everyone else we’re learning about the dynamics of publishing content in the digital space and that has grown simultaneously in the context of a brutal economic storm system. We need to build interfaces plural. We have to look at a pluralistic future – one piece of IP equalling many outputs, and a multitude of channels to communicate and distribute through. Welcome to the future: it’s complicated. But complicated things are often the most beautiful, right?