Paper and Pixels … What’s the future of the business book?

July 15, 2016

We all know that people have fundamentally changed the way they consume information. In the business world, the speed and impact of digital technologies is most obvious. Who wants to read a 300-page book of 80,000 words when you could watch a TED Talk in 20 minutes, or search through an endless array of Youtubes and more? And surely its easy to download an ebook, then have piles of heavy hardbacks?

Or are books still valuable? Immersing ourselves in the detail of ideas, gaining new insights and instruction through narrative, methodologies and diagrams, case studies and anecdotal stories?

Publishers have struggled to extricate themselves from their old ways of working. The slow process of turning long manuscripts into text-heavy books, printed with long-runs and then quickly forgotten as the world moves on. Some have begun to see the opportunity to get more practical (like the Lean Start-Up), turn content into tools (like the Business Model Canvas), or even set up a speaker agency (most authors can make as much from a 45 min keynote, as the entire royalties from a book). But in general, publishers have struggled to let go of the old, and explore the new world.

In 2010, the world’s leading design agency IDEO embarked on a project to create the future of books:

“Meet Nelson, Coupland, and Alice — the faces of tomorrow’s book” went the introduction. “What new experiences might be created by linking diverse discussions, what additional value could be created by connected readers to one another, and what innovative ways we might use to tell our favorite stories and build community around books?” they asked of the open innovation project.

As more people consume pages in pixels, IDEO designers wondered why we continue to discover and consume the written word through the old analog, page-turning model. We asked: what happens when the reading experience catches up with new technologies?

The team looked at how digital and analog books currently are being read, shared and collected, as well as at trends, business models and consumer behavior within related fields. We identified three distinct opportunities—new narratives, social reading with richer context, and providing tools for critical thinking—and developed a design concept around each one.

The first concept, “Alice,” turns storytelling on its head by making narratives non-linear and participatory. With Alice, the story world starts bleeding into the everyday life of the reader. Real-world challenges, like acting on a phone call from the lead character, or participating in photo based scavenger hunts, unlock new aspects of the story, and turn other readers into collaborators or competitors. Alice is a platform for authors to experiment with narratives, to allow their stories to transcend media, and to engage fans in the storytelling process.

The second concept, “Coupland,” makes book discovery a social activity by allowing readers to build shared libraries and hear about additional texts through existing networks. Coupland makes it easy for busy professionals to stay on top of industry must-reads. Businesses can assign book budgets to their employees and build collective libraries through a group-licensing model. Personal recommendations, aggregation of reading patterns, and the ability to follow inspiring individuals and groups help ensure that Coupland users always are tapped into the latest essential content within and outside of the organization.

The third concept, “Nelson,” connects books to commentary, critique, and contextual information, letting readers explore a topic from multiple perspectives. Nelson reinforces the role of books as carriers of knowledge and insight. Readers can explore polarizing material and see whose word currently has the greatest impact on popular opinion and debate. Layers of connected commentary, news, and fact-checking augment the core book content—providing greater context and encouraging debate and scrutiny.

Each concept features a simple, accessible storytelling format and a particular look and feel. We believe that digital technology creates possibilities, so our solutions truly adapt to the new environment, rather than emulate analog qualities onscreen. For example, we resisted any temptation to move books closer to the bite-sized character of other digital media, because longhand writing encourages immersion (deep reading) and reflection.

At this year’s Future Book Forum in Munich, on 2-4 November, we will be taking this concept further.

Here is a summary of last year’s Future Book Forum 2015

We’ll build on the last three year’s forums where we have created a vision, manifesto and roadmap for the future of book publishing. This year, at the largest gathering of the world’s book publishers, I’ll set them a challenge – to reinvent the book – in one day. I will again be leading the event, which will kick off the previous evening with inspiration from the world’s most exciting “gamechanger” companies who are shaking up every sector. Who will be the gamechangers of publishing, and what will the future book look like – starting with business books?

Next morning “the publisher” (ok, an audience of 250 publishing industry leaders, working together as one!) will receive their manuscript. This is not a usual one, it will actually be a compilation of exclusive new ideas from Thinkers50, the world’s community of the very top business gurus. The challenge is then what to do (just reformat it into 300 pages of text, or make it more visually appealing, or make it all digital, or some combination). And then how to make it happen (what imprint, book name, cover design, price point, or even pricing model as it could be free, channels to market, incentives, follow-ups, links to other activities).

We’ll work through three highly accelerated phases of innovation using the best approaches from design thinking, business model innovation and concept blueprinting. During each phase, we’ll also be gaining insights from some of the best content publishing concepts around (think Disney, Lego, Monocle). The three phases are

  • Ideas Lab – this phases is about divergent ideas, exploring the possibilities, stretching imaginations
  • Design Studio – focusing in, connecting and shaping the best ideas, driven from a consumer perspective
  • Future Blueprint – what will it look like, how will it be used, bought, priced, a roadmap for action

Thinkers50 founders Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer will be joining us as “editors” for the project, along with the collective “star alliance” of publishers (imagine a book published by all the top imprints, together?!), and supported by Canon (leaders in digital book printing) will then seek to make the book happen. A book of the world’s best business ideas, turned into a radical new concept instantly, and then available to the world. It will be launched in the way the team decides, and will be showcased at the Thinkers50 European Business Summit 2017 in Odense.

Here are some more insights on the future of books:

And an interesting infographic:


More details about this year’s Future Book Forum will be available soon. If you’d like to be part of the day, please get in touch!

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