By Kathleen Sweeney
If publishers could create a crystal ball app for the Future of the Book, it would be a mega-hit. With e-readers competing with mobile devices, the definition of the book is changing along with the marketplace. That much is known. What is not known is where it’s headed. Host of NPR’s Morning Edition Steve Inskeep has a sonorous voice that commands attention. As moderator of the panel on “What’s Next for the Book? Innovative Leaders on the Future,” he took the opportunity to announce the imminent launch of his own book, Instant City in the not so distant future.
Given the cyber nature of the talk, audience members were invited to live tweet their questions to the panelists, using the hashtag #BEAFuture. 140 characters, hello! One of them nailed it: “Isn’t inevitable that large publishers are going the way of the dinosaur?” Talk about the value of the succinct. What emerged from the discussion was that publishers have to adapt to avoid extinction. And while abandoning books altogether may be one business strategy — Calloway Digital’s chairman Nicholas Callaway represented one who had gone digital after years of “worshipping at the altar of books”; other panelists, like John Wiley and Sons CEO Steve Smith and Hay House’s Reid Tracey, attested that the book is not going away and that not all long-form ideas require an app. Some might just be a book, plain and simple.
Crowdsourcing, niche markets and the distinctions between multimedia publications and books kept the microphones buzzing. Steve Inskeep in particular was focused on determining the longevity of books versus apps. Instant City, anyone?
The most optimistic voice of all was that of Perry Chen from Kickstarter. This ingenuous launch pad for startups and creatives has, over the course of two years, raised $60 million for inventors, innovators and content creators in a new form of community-based digital patronage. With book projects as well as films, artworks and inventions emanating from the site, Chen had the most open-minded perspective about the longevity of books. Since Kickstarter isn’t in the business of publishing, they are open to all forms of mediamaking — page-based books as well as hybrid, multimedia experiments. As long as they bring in their supporters and meet their fundraising goals, buyer enthusiasm drives the work at an earlier “upstream” stage. This type of disruptive innovation is impacting the way all publishers are considering their effectiveness in building audiences.
Clearly books are not going away, but publishing houses are questioning old form inefficiencies based on hunches, which often result in wasted dollars and wasted trees but sometimes chance upon bestsellers. Many publishers, like Calloway, are becoming multimedia studios where authors meet up with gamers, filmmakers and tech ninjas to adapt their intellectual property to mobile and e-reading environments. They are also positioning themselves as curators of “quality” in an era of oversaturated content.
Kickstarter upstarts may prove so effective at locating their niche markets, they may continue to circumvent traditional publishing houses altogether. As they work in consort with the buzzing, creative multimedia environments in which we currently read, we will continue to witness words literally exploding inside the crystal ball.