To Succeed, Publishers Must Experiment… and Fail

Guy LeCharles GonzalezBy Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

The year 2010 will undoubtedly be the year of “e,” but it’s not going to stand for e-book; it will stand for experimentation. Experimentation with contracts, rights, formats and distribution channels; experimentation that will certainly include e-books, and rightfully so, but they won’t be the central focus — for publishers nor readers.

“E” is for Experiment (Not eBooks)

Six months ago, when exponential eBook growth was the dominant meme, I called for taking a step back from the hype to focus instead on the far more important “e” — experiment.

Since then, eBook sales have modestly declined every month since peaking in January (May’s data hasn’t been posted yet as of this writing), but there have been some encouraging signs that publishers realize the key to their long-term viability doesn’t hinge on any particular device, but on a willingness to experiment with new business models, sales and marketing channels, and yes, a variety of digital formats and workflow strategies.

Following is a roundup of notable posts, some more recent than others, and a couple of new DBW WEBcasts that focus on how publishers can navigate the digital transition that is simultaneously disrupting established business models while creating amazing new opportunities for those willing to experiment, take calculated risks, and rethink where “the book” fits in the digital era.

Adapt to recover, warn publishing chiefs
Bookseller News Team

“Our business needs to change, regardless of whether there is a recession or not. The economic situation has merely hurried the process along . . . To be honest, I don’t anticipate the market ever returning to pre-recession levels in its current form.”

Barnsley, whose company saw sales fall 13.3%, the largest drop among the top 10 and despite Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winner Wolf Hall, explained it had been necessary to take “a lot of cost out of the business”, including cutting the number of titles published by 20%. “We are focusing more on profit than on market share [now at 7.3%],” she said. “Most publishers over-publish for today’s market.

The Future of Print
by Kassia Krozser

I cannot predict when the shift from mostly print to mostly digital will happen. I suspect it will be like a patchwork quilt. Print becomes more valuable when it becomes less disposable. We will happily invest in quality because what we buy is something we want to preserve — and display — for a long time. I think we interact with different media in different ways. I’m not a smell of books person, but I am a tactile person. Different types of content (the wrong word here, but nicely umbrella) demand different types of interaction.

Print and digital are different experiences. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s what the book, the story within (be it fiction or non-fiction), requires. Some stories can be told in every format possible. Some must be purely digital. Some demand the pace of print.

The iPad, Transmedia, and the Future of Publishers
By Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Executive Optimist, Digital Book World

If the iPad fulfills its promise of changing the way we interact with digital content, the question of territorial rights for eBooks and the temptation to split eBook rights from print deals could become even thornier as the book becomes just one of a variety of platforms available to authors in a transmedia world, and “Transmedia Producers” become the preferred gatekeepers.

While there are some in the publishing world who appear to have seen this shift coming — including Open Road Integrated Media, Movable Type Literary Group, and Random House — developing new business models to take advantage of cross-media opportunities, can any of them compete with a truly collaborative approach that’s a far more natural fit for film producers?

Where does the book, and the publishing supply chain devoted to it, fit in a transmedia world?

Creation & Design: What Kids Want From Tech
By Kim Gaskins, Director of Content Development, Latitude

It’s no surprise that gaming is popular with kids. But creation and design? Yep – unsung favorites. Thirty one percent of technology ideas proposed by children were a tool or platform for creating something (a Web site, a game, a video to be shared, a physical object, etc.).

“Artistic creation and design were common underlying principles for a large subset of the kids’ technology concepts, with truly incredible diversity across disciplines. Kids wanted to be 3D game designers, Web designers, fashion designers, landscape designers, industrial designers, musicians, ‘traditional’ artists – and then, of course, the study itself was an exercise in imaginative creation,” said Reinis.

Publishers Need to Fail Better, Cheaper, Faster
By Rebecca Smart, Managing Director, Osprey Publishing/Shire

If you perceive that your only environment is that encompassed by your current supply chain then you’re only going to adapt to changes in that environment – so the response to the digital challenge viewed in this way would be to create and sell e-books. If you put the consumer at the heart of your thinking you can consider instead each group of customers you serve and what they might want on top of what you already provide, how they might want you to serve them differently in the future. More to the point, you can ASK them, listen and respond.

The best way to ensure that experimentation takes place is to push leadership out through your company. Those closest to the consumers are those best-equipped to come up with the ideas for future experiments. One of the experiments beginning at Osprey right now is a digital-only project in a new niche which was conceived and is being driven by two of our marketing team.

A Clear, Easy Roadmap for Change
By Edwina Lui, Director of Content Management and Strategy, Kaplan Publishing

Experimentation:  The (Pseudo) Scientific Method

If you recall those bygone days of high school (or college) science laboratory sessions, you know that the key to testing a hypothesis or making a new discovery is experimentation via the scientific method.  By carefully laying out a plan for the experiment, testing its permutations, and studying the results, all the mysteries of science could be uncovered as a finite list of conclusions.  If only publishing were so predictable.

Still, those long-ago lessons hold true, and trial-and-error often yields the most effective learning experience.

  1. Mini-Pilots:  When you plan for change, think big, but when you implement, think small.  Running a small pilot as your first step will minimize risk and keep your current business on track.
  2. Failure IS an Option:  In fact, failure is nearly a given.  Without the benefit of clairvoyance, you’re bound to stumble at some point.  Expect failure and embrace it—there’s much to be learned from what went wrong.  Study every backwards step and make sure your staff knows that their fates don’t hang on the success of a pilot project.
  3. The Pre-Postmortem:  Not only is the term postmortem a bit morbid, putting off a project assessment until the pilot is ‘dead’ may yield you nothing but flies (sorry, I had to go there).  Discoveries and insights can occur at any point.  Capitalize on those eureka moments and keep your pilot project adaptive.
  4. Agility:  Are you tired of that word, yet?  Building off the previous point, make sure to remain nimble in your pilot.  Unexpected insights crop up throughout a good pilot, and you should be ready to modify your goal, rather than doggedly pursuing a potentially outdated goal.  (What do they say about best laid plans?)  More importantly, identify a stopping point, which may or may not be the planned ‘end’ of the experiment.  You may reach a good stopping point halfway through a pilot, and be ready for the next stage.

Additionally, we have two upcoming DBW WEBcasts focusing on areas of publishing where the willingness to experiment has been a necessity for years — role-playing games and comic books — and the lessons learned are invaluable for ALL publishers.

Digital Strategies: Learning from RPG Publishers
FREE: Tuesday, July 13th @ 1pm EDT // 10am PDT

Digital Strategies: Learning from Comics Publishers
FREE: Tuesday, August 10th @ 1pm EDT // 10am PDT

Stay tuned for more “Digital Strategies” WEBcasts to be announced in the Fall by signing up for our newsletter.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is the Director of Programming & Business Development for Digital Book World, and a published poet, writer, and active blogger since 2003. An old and new media pragmatist, social media realist, and marketing strategist, he views publishing as a community service, and is optimistic about its future.

4 thoughts on “To Succeed, Publishers Must Experiment… and Fail

  1. stephen Bateman


    This is a great roundup on the theme and a fabulous reminder of the rich specialist content the DBW community has curated for the benefit of all of us working in an industry who so badly seek new ideas, inspiration, leadership and change.

    I documented my own response to the Bookseller article outlining the beleaguered UK sector this morning

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  4. Peter Collingridge

    Hey – I believe a lot in failure. As someone who has worked in publishing and tech for 12 years, I’ve got a lot of it under my belt. In fact I gave a talk about it – pecha kucha style – at the London book fair a couple of years ago. If you’re interested, the video is here:
    and the slides here:



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