Creating a brighter future for books … new ways for publishers to innovate and grow

November 18, 2015

The death of books has long been discussed. In a digitally-enabled, time-compressed world, there are few moments to get lost in a novel, and most factual knowledge is accessed faster and better online. Whilst sales and margins decline, publishers continue to hang on to a seemingly lost cause. More business books were published last year than ever before. Yet even my own publisher, Wiley, still seems obsessed with its page and word count, irrespective of content, visuality or reader experience.

Last week in Munich, I hosted the Future Book Forum 2015. With the support of Canon, we brought together more publishing houses, more printers and other parts of the supply chain, than ever before. We had two days to create the future of books.  And whilst most industry insiders seem further obsessed by reducing their costs to sustain their existing mindsets, we broke free of that to explore how publishers could actually grow, physically and digitally, in our new world.



Where to start? The consumer – those great people who read books, or at least used to. We explored different personas – from young digital natives who may never have even seen a book, but are organically connected to their Snapchat, Netflix and Facebook apps – to the enlightened boomer, who has discovered the joy of reading the news online, or Facetiming their grandchildren.

As we explored (in much more depth, and variation) the different consumers, we found that the drivers for knowledge – be it news or messaging, education or entertainment, business information  or how to guides – are as strong as ever. Consumption has changed – in media and format, in time and place, in sequence and spontaneity, in duration and perceived value, co-created and shared – but they actually want more, not less. The challenge is do so in the right way, physically as well as digitally.


We also learnt from other places – for example, Disney‘s ability to build incredible character-based brands, from Mickey Mouse to Hannah Montana, or more recently Veronica, and then to leverage those assets across all the different media, building fan bases, and using multiple business models. Of course, its not the books, but the videos, the online games, the live events, which make most of the money. So what’s the brand, which the publisher leverages? Certainly not their own imprint, rarely the author or book title (except in the case of blockbuster titles). In the business world, I make around 2% of my income from books, but the book is fundamental in making the 98%. But the publisher is just not interested in helping me do that, or share in the rewards.



Lego is another great example. Whilst anybody can make a good quality bucket of colourful plastic bricks today, it recognised that its brand needed to do more for people. Around 60% of Lego users now subscribe to the online community, where photos of the best constructions are proudly shared with peers across the world, whilst seeing other efforts prompts builders to go further, buy more, and engage deeper. Whilst Lego almost went too far with some of its licensed merchandise for Star Wars, it has now found its mojo again, particularly in creating more high value characters, particularly for girls. Of course, other ventures such as Legoland, online gaming, and even the Lego Movie have provided great brand extensions, to make the content go further.


So what about books? Whilst most publishers just don’t get it, there is a new generation of collaborators – publishers and printers – who are creating fabulous innovative solutions. This is particularly in the case of school books. From Turkey, to Austria and Germany, school books are increasingly personalised to the individual needs of teachers and students – creating a compilation of diagnostics, learning tools and printed books which are unique to the needs of each person.  For example, using smartphone-based diagnostics to test progress, online platforms to share videos and webinars, and then driving printed books to support revision in key areas. Books using digital printing so that they can be personalised, on demand, and printed anywhere are very little extra cost. Take this a step further, like in Denmark, and you can bring together big data on every student, every teacher, every lesson, to share learning and best practices, and improve the education of every child. That’s education, the same kind of models are emerging in travel books, cookery books, business books, and more.

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In fact, one thing my own publisher, Wiley, did to support my recently launched Gamechangers book was to support the development of a digital hub. This is not simply about promoting the book, but about bringing it to life in new and ongoing ways. Each of the case studies become live and interactive, with direct feeds with latest news and performance, videos enhance the written ideas, and toolkits can be downloaded free. Readers can get involved too, adding their own videos and presentations, voting in regular competitions, discussing and contributing to the big ideas, and adding new ones. And then there are events, masterclasses, webinars and coaching too. This keeps it fresh, topical, interesting and relevant. It also builds a community of people around a big idea.

The Future Book Forum got highly practical on the second day, developing new business models for different types of customers, built on book experiences that combine the best of physical and digital. Imagine you are running a marathon, and the types of knowledge and inspiration you might need when training, connecting with others, learning from old hands, planning your travel, and also the types of photo book souvenir you would value afterwards. Imagine a future travel guide that combines that best of experts and the crowd, that combines printed guides and maps with pop up videos and discounted entry tickets.  One you start thinking about the customer, publishers become innovators.

Future of Books

At the end of the two day forum, I brought all the best ideas together, to build a business case for change. On the supply side, we have a case for cost reduction and efficiency (in order of most financial impact):

  • reduce risk – digital printing allowing much smaller print runs (e.g. batches of 100 rather than 10,000!), ability to test ideas, to focus marketing on the best sellers, eliminate poor performers and thereby have much less failure.
  • reduce waste – fewer returns and books destroyed (typically 40% of old books printed are pulped due to non sale), due to small print volumes, and a “long tail” of books printed on demand, anywhere and at anytime.
  • reduce space – less stock on shelf and in warehouses, allowing retailers to reduce costs and operate more flexibly, unlimited by their physical size, location or distribution reach.
  • reduce time – faster time to market, making books far more topical and relevant to current issues and trends, and minimising slow cross-border distribution (e.g. order a book in some places and it’s delivered in 6 weeks!).

However the far more significant opportunities for publishers, and printers too, lies on the demand side, responding to changing consumer needs, and driving new revenues and profitable growth (in order of financial impact):

  • increase services – building brands around communities of interests (e.g. marathon runners, rock climbers), including events, innovative multi-media platforms and branded partners, to deliver richer hybrid experiences
  • increase channels – allowing publishers to sell directly to audiences (both individual and corporate), maybe with direct added value by authors (like Kickstarter!), with lifestyle brands (e.g. fashion stores, travel companies).
  • increase frequency – exploring new business models, such as membership and subscription (e.g. buy a gift of a book every month), licensing, mixing and embedding the best content in more places, and updating.
  • increase price – enhancing the perceived value of books through personalisation (people will pay more, just look at photo books), special editions (collector editions to fans), bundling, souvenirs and gifting.

Most publishers and printers focus on efficiency improvements (an obvious one would be to shift to digital printing, where the price per copy is marginally higher, but the overall cost savings big), however the real opportunities to turn a declining industry into a re-energised and booming one, is to focus on the growth opportunities.

A full description of the business case and its opportunities for publishers to reimagine and revitalise their businesses is available.

This was my third Future Book Forum, which has become the international event for bringing publishers and printers together, and working practically to move the industry forwards. Last year we created a 5 year roadmap for how  we needed, and wanted, to shape the industry. Next year we continue on that exciting journey.

What did I learn? Books are not dead. There are incredible opportunities for publishers in a digital world, where data and knowledge, physical and digital, local and global, is more in demand than ever. The publishers, or at least the enlightened ones, departed with a glint in their eye, having just seen a brighter future.


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