Earlier this week, I attended the Center for Communication event, “Magazines for a New Generation” at The New School, which featured representatives from Glamour, Vanity Fair, Teen Vogue, and more. The panel was a thought-provoking look at how the digital has affected magazine publishing, focusing on how magazines have weathered the migration to small screens. Even though centered on magazines, I came away from the event thinking about what book publishers could learn from the glossies, and I was especially inspired by discussions about the reading experience, reader feedback, and the skill sets necessary for the digital age.
A few takeaways and reflections that might find resonance among book publishers:
Readers provide guideposts to the way ahead. One key to survival is to invite and to process reader feedback, a theme explored at length at this week’s Roundtable, “Direct to Reader: Best Practices for Publishers.” But, often those demands can seem divergent or at cross-purposes. Sharing some observations in developing apps for periodicals, Jared Cocken of The Wonderfactory made the point that, although one’s digital target market might be diverse demographically, it is still possible to find commonalities in what makes a good reading experience. For example, an older demographic might want a reading experience that more closely replicates the print experience, while younger readers, more accustomed to consuming digital content all the time, might seek out a more unique or more personalized relationship with the content.
Yet, despite what might seem diametrically opposed reader experience preferences, Cocken also identified three common preferences, all facilitated by technology, that were generally echoed throughout the panel discussion and inspired some personal thoughts about analogies to the book industry:
- Aesthetics: Removing the question of whether a digital publication should replicate the aesthetics of its print publication, a publisher could embed fonts to engage in “typographic branding” to stand out and project its identity. This seems to be a growing trend as more publications look to customized digital experiences (both on the web and on devices) to replace earlier digital extensions that pulled content into a generic delivery system.
- Rich Media: Even though panelists reiterated several times that there were things that could only be done in print, there was general recognition that certain digital-only assets, such as slideshows and videos, were important additions to textual content that enhanced the reader experience but did not detract from the value of textual content. Is it only a matter of time before rich media supplements and enhancements become de rigueur as more and more consumers come to expect them?
- Curation: In some ways, the glossies’ strength in curation keeps the role of the magazine publisher relevant, even critical, in an environment with such an abundance of information. Is acquisitions the equivalent role for book publishers? Can book publishers remain relevant as readers’ expectations shift and self-publishing continues to amass attention and sales?
Shifts in technology, the business environment, and readers’ expectations require “jacks of all trades.” Several audience members asked about the expertise and skill sets needed to break into the magazine industry, and the general response of the panel emphasized the need for flexibility. With rising expectations that content be complemented by social and new media dimensions, Ben Berentson of Glamour advised being comfortable with all “the tools in your toolkit,” while Teen Vogue Senior Features Editor Leigh Belz advised being “all around handy.” This need to be all things, all at once is reflected in how few organizations have dedicated staff for any of these functions; none of the publications represented on this panel had a dedicated social media person, for example.
But focus on good writing, no matter what. Despite the need for diverse know-how in skills such as image and video editing, social mediums, publishing platforms, and more, all the panelists also agreed on the continued value of “good writing,” with at least one panelist expressing a clear hiring preference for solid writing abilities over strong technical skills. Even though the writing itself might be stylistically different, text still underpins so much content, regardless of platform, and this seems an important lesson even as attention is drawn to the latest in technological “flash.”
Will “good writing” be enough to overcome all the apparent skills gaps that challenge many publishers of content? Probably not, but the tenor of the discussion suggested that a publisher need not, even should not, abandon basic principles—such as good reporting, engaging writing, or authentic voice—while adopting new methods and engaging in a new relationship with readers.