Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
In this increasingly mobile world, more digital publishers are developing apps and content designed to be consumed on the small screens of mobile devices. The “tap story,” or a story in which readers tap their screens to progress through the narrative, is a form of mobile-first content rising in popularity. Often these tap stories include visuals, and many are designed to teach the audience about various topics.
Hardbound.co is one organization that has recently pivoted its business direction to offer an innovative, mobile-first approach to digital storytelling. Hardbound’s approach raises an interesting question for authors and publishers: What are the intellectual, moral and commercial implications of an app that creates and publishes content based on existing works?
Hardbound’s latest pivot may, at first glance, concern some in the publishing industry. Is this new approach good or bad for publishing? Let’s consider some pros and cons.
The platform will now create digested, visual stories based on published nonfiction books. Check out this story based on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, or this one based on Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, for example. Hardbound’s new direction was received with broad acclaim on Product Hunt, where it’s long been a popular app and where Hardbound founder Nathan Bagshaw is a familiar face. However, Product Hunt’s audience of early adopters isn’t especially concerned with the health of the publishing industry.
Negative #1: Tap stories shortchange readers.
It was left to one commenter to voice what some from the industry may feel:
“There is an actual reason why books are written and the benefit of actually reading a book [sic] … and there is much more to be gleaned from reading an actual story or book than can be understood from this bastardization of a novel into tiny snippets … with animations, images etc. …”
This is basically on-your-phone super-abbreviated version of the yellow/black Cliff Notes—they were already a bad idea but at least they summarized things semi-well …
Negative #2: Tap stories take advantage of content creators.
The customer reviews didn’t mention the other elephant in the room: Is this approach essentially ripping authors off? Will consuming a digested version of a book in five minutes preclude people from buying the original book on which the story is based?
It would have been easy for Bagshaw to overlook this one dissenter in a sea of positive responses. But he’s clearly thought through such claims and decided to address them in a blog post.
Postive #1: Visual storytelling is effective storytelling.
From my point of view, I thought Bagshaw addressed the claims pretty well; for example, on the notion of Hardbound ‘dumbing down’ the approach to learning, he says:
“In truth, visuals help almost everyone learn more quickly and efficiently than decoding a bunch of text. Ten years from now, people will look back on our weird aversion to visual storytelling like we now look back on our parents’ weird aversion to text messaging in the early 2000s.”
I’m not convinced that the reference to parents’ opinions of text messaging is the strongest comparison he could have made, but I agree with his assertion that visuals help storytelling. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has sat through all-text PowerPoint presentations that cry out for an engaging image here or there.
Postive #2: Snippets give readers exposure that may lead to additional sales.
Moving on to the concern that the Hardbound version of a book will prevent someone from buying the original source, Bagshaw remarks:
“Sure, not everyone who reads a Hardbound story will go on to read the book. But I’d bet that those people were never going to read the book in the first place.”
He makes a strong point. I am probably not going to invest in The Righteous Mind, but before seeing the Hardbound story based on it, I’d only vaguely heard of it and so would have been even less likely to buy. On this basis I can envision times when a Hardbound story exposes me to something I go on to purchase—acting rather like a movie trailer, but for books.
On the same theme, Bagshaw says:
“When authors do podcast interviews, or give TED talks, or make YouTube videos, they are increasing the number of people who read their books. Hardbound serves the exact same function.”
He makes it sound more cut-and-dried than is perhaps warranted here—I imagine not every related YouTube video increases the sale of every book. But I can definitely think of examples on both sides of this coin when it comes to my own book-buying experiences. Susan Cain’s TED talk encouraged me to read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, but for some reason Amy Cuddy’s enjoyable presentation about body language didn’t lead me to buy Presence.
Furthermore, says Bagshaw:
“We link people to the Amazon page of books and can tell that since yesterday, dozens of people have already bought books directly after reading the Hardbound story. And that’s just what we can directly measure on the first day!”
(I have to say I couldn’t actually see these links, on desktop or mobile, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he wouldn’t make this claim if it weren’t true. Perhaps there’s a bug related to the new format preventing me from seeing them.)
Postive #3: Snippets generate a new marketplace.
Reading Bagshaw’s rationale, I found myself becoming more convinced of the value of Hardbound’s approach to authors and publishers. This was helped by an apparent eagerness on the behalf of authors to partner with the startup, which Bagshaw shared:
“From our conversations with authors and publishers, it’s clear that there is a willingness and ability to pay for great content that helps sell book copies. From our early data, we’re extremely confident we will help sell a lot of books. So now we have a natural market of people who would be willing to create Hardbound stories themselves, or at least pay for the creation of Hardbound stories.”
One idea we had is to create a marketplace where businesses who want Hardbound stories created could hire writers and designers to build one for them.
This is compounded by the fact that Jonathan Haidt retweeted the link to the Hardbound story based on his book, plus the news that they’re starting to work with authors before publication, outlined in this explanation of their new direction:
“We’re starting to get access to books before they launch (stay tuned for our adaptation of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s upcoming book) and believe if we play our cards right, we can become a part of the book launch. News outlets can embed our stories in the articles they write about new books, and get their readers to engage 5–10x longer.”
Hardbound.co: Book ‘trailers’—or book replacements?
So Hardbound exposes people to books they may not have heard of, making them more likely to buy them; they want to work with authors and publishers to ensure the quality of their content remains high; and they want to create jobs around this proposition.
This is a win all around, right? I’d be very interested to hear what authors and publishers think about this particular innovation and its implications for the industry.
Stuart Waterman is a strategist at digital consultancy and startup studio Mint Digital, and co-curator of the Non-Fiction Addiction community and event series. Mint Digital has worked with several publishing houses, and BookEngine, their latest software product, is a title manipulation and distribution engine that gives publishers more power over their book catalogue data.