Storytelling Competition from Film and Television: What Can Publishers Do?

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Publishing’s traditional position as society’s main storytelling industry may be in jeopardy. At a Byte the Book session during London Book Fair, speakers discussed how publishers can remain competitive.

At the Byte the Book program on reading in digital times during London Book Fair week at the Club at the Ivy. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Storytelling: ‘Competing for People’s Time’
In a spacious upstairs room at The Club at the Ivy in London on the eve of London Book Fair, the digital publishing community Byte the Book held a discussion on “Publishers Go Prospecting: Finding Hidden Treasure in Your Content.”

The program was sponsored by Copyright Clearance Center and Ixxus, and was hosted by Byte the Book’s Hermione Ireland and Justine Solomons.

The conversation, moderated by Publishing Perspectives, looked past standard questions about whether a publishing house is making the most of its backlist. And four speakers agreed to look at issues of where publishing might need to understand itself in the wider landscape of entertainment today.

The premise came from two relatively recent comments made at UK publishing conferences.

  • In December, the author Jeff Norton said at The FutureBook Conference produced by The Bookseller that “TV is now the dominant medium of culture”—something not easy for some to hear in publishing, which normally sees itself as the story-originating industry.
  • And in preparing for last week’s Quantum Conference at London Book Fair, keynote speaker Tom Goodwin said in an interview with us, “Book publishing is not in the ‘text industry.’ It’s not in the ‘reading industry.’ It’s in the ‘what do people want to spend their time doing?’ industry.”

The basic challenge, then, is to determine how well positioned book publishing is today to face the storytelling competition of television and film from companies such as Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon Studios, even as gaming, video, music, and other digitally delivered attractions draw more attention from consumers. The issue becomes more complicated, of course, in the face of new alliances like Topple Books, the collaboration between Amazon Publishing, Amazon Studios and filmmaker Jill Soloway’s Topple Productions.

And one of the key factors that surfaced during the evening was how critical branding may be in such a deeply crowded marketplace of content. How well is publishing able to leverage branding as a driver of sales?

We have four observations here, edited from the comments at the London session, each with a distinctive take on the topic.

Susan Bolsover of Penguin Random House and BBC Worldwide’s Andy Blustin at London’s Byte the Book session on mining content. Image: Porter Anderson

Susan Bolsover: ‘Publishers Are the Best Storytellers’

Susan Bolsover directs licensing and consumer products for Penguin Ventures, and her earlier experience in managing in-house brands with BBC Worldwide and global product roll-outs with Italy’s DeAgostini was on her mind as she spoke.

“What they love is a story. If they love the character, it doesn’t matter how it’s arranged to get to that story. What they connect with first is a brand that they recognize.”Susan Bolsover

“Prior to coming to Penguin Random House,” Bolsover said, “I spent 10 years working for film studios, for TV production companies. I’ve worked on some of the biggest children’s IP in cinema and TV. And when I interviewed for the position at Penguin Random House, most of the people that I knew in my industry—many of whom were sitting in Hollywood and thought my next move was to the studios—said to me, ‘Are you mad? Why the hell are you going to a publishing company? What on earth do they possibly have?’

“But I stand by [that decision] now, almost six years in. I think publishers are the last bastion of great content. And I think most people in this room would agree that publishers are the best storytellers.” The challenge becomes “getting people to find that book but not necessarily through that medium.

“Most people will probably be horrified in this room to think of us making lunchboxes and pajamas and duvets and goodness knows what else, but that’s literary intellectual property that people find a connection with. What they love is a story. If they love the character, it doesn’t matter how it’s arranged to get to that story. What they connect with first is a brand that they recognize.

“So I’m really interested in those quotes about TV being the dominant medium, and also about the idea that publishers are not in the text industry, they’re not in a reading industry. You are competing for people’s time. And I think that’s what we have to remember. I sit in the children’s division at Penguin Random House, so I’m particularly interested in how young people are getting to that content. I think it’s about not being afraid to think about what we can do once you reach them in in the first place.”

Andy Blustin: ‘To Reach Out To Consumers’

Heading up business development for BBC Worldwide’s digital partnerships team, Andy Blustin is focused on packaging BBC content to license to digital partners, often in relation to such key franchise brands as BBC Earth, Top Gear, and Doctor Who.

“Discoverability is a key challenge for all of us. In an ever-growing plethora of content, directing your consumer to find content they believe they’ll enjoy [means] the power of the brand is all-important. “Andy Blustin

“Firstly, what is TV?” Blustin asked, picking up on Bolsover’s comments about branding. “Because I think what we’ve seen over the past 10 years is an explosion in different types of formats, from a 30-second how-to-make-a-pancake piece or the how-to-make-slime show that I was watching over Easter half-term with my daughter to 10 minutes to 30 minutes to hours.

“The spectrum of what is TV has broadened immeasurably. When you meet with YouTube, their key metric is how much watch-time you’re delivering via your channels, so they gauge the success of their platform entirely on how much of people’s time” you can. Equally, Netflix–are you consuming more of the next episode, binge-watching? They see it as success.

“In terms of branding, I think the point there is about discoverability. It’s a key challenge for all of us. In an ever-growing plethora of content, directing your consumer to find content they believe they’ll enjoy [means] the power of the brand is all-important. And I think where we all start and what we struggle with is access to the data to be able to reach out to those consumers to inform them of the fact that they’ve just seen or watched or read X, Y, Z and would they like to see or watch or read” another offering?

“And the brand can help, but the access to the data and to that personal connection is equally as powerful, and that’s why you have to sign in now to” content on your “iPhone or you sign in to Netflix or you sign into everything” as content purveyors learn to capture access to consumers wherever they can.

Vodafone’s Jason Haynes, left, and Hodder Education’s Steve Connolly speak at Byte the Book’s London Book Fair-eve program on publishing’s content in a highly competitive digital environment. Image: Porter Anderson

Jason Haynes: ‘Build That Community’

Having managed the Vodafone Group’s mobile content strategy since 2012, Jason Haynes has overseen the transition from operator-branded offerings to partnerships with best-in-class music and video brands, all while watching the reach of mobile mushroom.

“There’s something around the brand in the first place, but inside the brand, there’s content. So we try to market content inside the brand.”Jason Haynes

“I think about some research we did recently,” Haynes said. “There’s probably about 10 times as much recognition for the brand Netflix or Spotify than there is for Kindle. And Kindle is probably taking associations as a piece of hardware rather than a book service or a content service. There’s something around the brand in the first place, but inside the brand, there’s content. So we try to market content inside the brand.

“Google is a whole other story because they have to deal with how do they allow access to free content at the same time as trying to sell protected content? I think everything is competing for time, but I think people also change the way that they spend their time.

“So we see that people in a household will sit back and watch videos, but actually we see much more use of music when people are out and about on their mobile than when they’re at home. You see such very different patterns. I mean if you think about the way sports rights have changed over the last few years, the sports rights of clips and goal replays and bits and pieces are now so much more valuable because kids don’t sit and watch the whole game.

“So it’s a competition for time. Mobile puts a device in many, many people’s hands that they can read something on. But there’s a lot of other things on mobile as well. The challenge for anybody with content on mobile is how do you surface that content so it’s not lost in all the other things? That’s probably where video and music have been more successful so far than publishing.

“There’s a community around e-sports. That’s what’s different than people sitting at home playing games. There’s lots of social interaction. And actually, that’s the worst thing about reading a book on a table–I agree–but for e-sports, that’s kind of made the whole thing. I’m watching somebody play, but I’m able to interact with other people, so is this something to be challenged by or is this something to think about how do you leverage, how do you build that community around sharing reading, generating some of the data we were talking about earlier?”

Steve Connolly: ‘Look at the Consumer’

At Hodder Education, Steve Connolly is managing the publisher’s digital strategy and has handled partnerships with ed-tech companies and large corporate entities including the BBC, Microsoft, and Apple. One of his focal points is scalable and cost-effective delivery of online services to the marketplace.

“I want to be able to say I’ve got really good content, and I want to be able to disseminate that in such a way that you can find it, you can use it legitimately, you can figure out how it’s useful to you.”Steve Connolly

“How many of you thought that audiobooks were an absolute dog for the business about 20 years ago?” Steve Connolly asked the audience.

“If you asked any trade publisher, there was a little unit in the back of the building that had CDs going up the walls, and you sold them for 25 quid. So maybe you sold 30 copies. Who would like to have an alternative that turned in the amount of turnover that Audible turns over every year as the trend in business? I would.

“And I think what that tells us is sometimes we have to look for trends. And it’s not just about what we own. The thing that’s revolutionized the audiobook is the mobile phone. It’s a bit like the resurgence of the ’50s soap opera as it was originally.

“So I think there’s a real lesson to be learned. And I always like to say that I know my place in the Web: What I mean by that” as a publisher “is that I want to be able to say I’ve got really good content, and I want to be able to disseminate that in such a way that you can find it, you can use it legitimately, you can figure out how it’s useful to you, you can relate it back to the course of your learning, and you can get better at what you were doing.

“There are trade publishers in nonfiction who can do that all the time. And it just strikes me that sometimes we’re out of tune, we’re out of step. And being a futurist is a difficult thing in this world, because we don’t own very much of that environment” in terms of the burgeoning digital delivery matrix. “We’re completely the victims of it. But we should embrace what we can.

“I think Amazon–love or hate them–they’re brilliant at identifying a trend very early on. And they’re willing–of course, they have more capital at their disposal–but they’re willing to chuck much more money” at what looks like a good chance at succeeding.

“They’ve had successes, there are also failures. But where they win, they win because they look at their consumer. They treat their consumer as someone they understand. And that’s what I think we’re not so good at doing, if I’m honest. So that would be my takeaway from this.”

Audience members chat around the Byte the Book program on reading in digital times during London Book Fair week. Image: Porter Anderson


More from Publishing Perspectives on London Book Fair is here

Publishing Perspectives’ Spring Magazine is focused on inclusivity and diversity. It’s ready here for your download as a PDF, and was available in print at London Book Fair.

In it, we’ve asked publishing people how we can make our industry and the books we publish reflect increasingly diverse populations in many countries. And we’ve asked them to articulate why this is important to publishers, readers, and society at large.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He is also co-owner and editor with Jane Friedman of The Hot Sheet, the newsletter for trade and indie authors. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, at London's The Bookseller. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.

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