DNA of the “Smart Book” … defining the future of book publishing, and what it means for the world of education.

November 30, 2017

The Future Book Forum is the world’s largest gathering of book publishers and printers, exploring the best new ideas for innovation and growth. Enabled by Canon, the event is fast and inspiring, practical and collaborative.

Over the last 4 years we set out an an ambitious journey, to define a better future for the book. Whilst we all recognise that digital technologies have fundamentally transformed lives and industries, we also recognised that it can also enhance the physical world. Making real things – in our case, books – even more personal, intelligent and useful.

We started by creating a future vision for the book publishing industry, one in which publishers and printers, authors and readers, could work together to create more inspiring and more profitable experiences. Whilst most discussion tends to focus on the digital impact of online distribution and digital formats, and there are clear benefits to adopting digital technologies in the supply chain for printing on demand and personalisation, we wanted to go beyond this.

Most importantly we needed to understand the outside world – the changing customer. For every one of us, the way we shop, the way we stay in touch with friends, the way in which we learn, the way in which we are entertained has been quite dramatically changed. Whilst young people have naturally embraced a new world, largely centred around their smart phones, every age group, at work and home have migrated to new ways of gaining and sharing content.

We then looked at the business model. Digital printing technologies offered in simple way to reduce the risk in publishing, being able to print small batches on demand, develop regular updates and special editions, reduce warehouse stocks and speed up time to market. But this is largely a story of cost efficiency. We explored how publishers could do much more to drive growth too, to increase revenues and in particular profitability, by leveraging content in new ways.

In 2017 we went further … to define the “smart book”. Forget the artificial division of print and digital, people consume knowledge across platforms, and therefore the best books embrace both worlds too. How can you bring together the best of physical (tangible, browsable, artistic, treasurable) and digital (instant, customisable, efficient, updatable), in order to create something more power … a book of the future … a smart book? What does this means, what are the building blocks, and how do they combine?

To inspire us, we looked beyond the world of publishing to how other consumer experience are changing, for example like Netflix and Spotify in taking traditional movie or music content, and repurposing it for today’s consumers. Whilst the content is still there, it is delivered through fundamentally new experiences – across multiple platforms, customised to users by understanding them as individuals, and more profitable by applying new business models such as subscription and partnered content.

Tchibo might not seem an obvious parallel, but is actually a fabulous inspiration. The German coffee brand first explored delivering its products across multiple own-branded channels, from retail stores to consumer direct. It then added to the store experience, offering a wide range of unusual but relevant merchandise. It changed its stock every two weeks, to drive curiosity and frequent visits, and it used catalogues and special promotions to engage it target consumers on an ongoing basis. Just think about the parallels … So what emerged as “the DNA” of a smart book?

For starters, there is still a great future for the “book” … but it needs to be a much more significant, more engaging and profitable concept than just printed pages. The “smart book” is the book plus more. Augmented with technology, integrated into the digital world, enabling the user to do more,  (and the publishers to make more money, too!). A big and emotive debate, was what sits at its heart – some said content, others said the user. A bit like “the chicken or the egg” perhaps, but also an important philosophical point from where to start. And then what else matters most – including a great debate about the roles of big data and personalisation. Eventually, an order emerged.

What’s the DNA of a “smart book”?

  • User … the consumer of ideas, young or old, professional or educational, sitting at home, on the go
  • Content … the idea, from words to video, diagnostics and toolkits, co-created and additive over time
  • Big Data … driving personalisation, algorithms predicting relevance, or learning and adapting
  • Brand … a more relevant and meaningful for the user, that can work across platforms and time
  • Participation … the content becomes interactive, co-created or actionable, real and engaging
  • Community … enabling people to share their passion, their knowledge, their content together
  • Platform … across formats and devices, physical and digital, published to live interactions
  • Guidance … people need direction and support, curated or advisory, passively or actively
  • Design … driving the usability and interaction across devices, easy and inspiring to engage with
  • Journey … an ongoing experience, with new content, that evolves with the user and their needs

We took this emerging DNA of a smart book, and focused it on Education 4.0.

How is the world of education changing? For children, students and throughout life? We will explore the big trends in more modular, collaborative and lifelong learning, and understand the new opportunities for content, and the role of the smart book in supporting this. I certainly know, through my own teen age children (who lie on their beds glued to their phones), that the nature of study, revision, testing and progress has fundamentally changed from the days of chalkboards and text books.

Education 4.0 refers specifically to the way in which technology is transforming conventional education practices (an echo of Industry 4.0). From peer to peer learning (social media enabling children to teach each other in more relevant and engaging ways) to customised content (taking ongoing test results, then personalised learning to each individual), from learning “why and where” rather than “what and how” (information is always accessible, so its more than the old memory test) and being able to link all of this to learning for life (ongoing challenge as we live longer, how to embrace continuous learning at all ages).

What’s the DNA of an educational “smart book”?

  • User … recognising each student as an individual, with different capabilities and learning needs
  • Content … more than a text book, from games to video, diagnostics and toolkits, and much more
  • Big Data … customising content through personal data, regular diagnostics and learning algorithms
  • Brand … integrating the education brand in a way that is more engaging to teachers and students
  • Participation … fully interactive, engaging with teachers, and with peers, learning together
  • Community … sharing passion and ideas, learning is no longer local, or limited by school walls
  • Platform … typically mobile centric, for teens of today, but linking formats and devices together
  • Guidance … the role of the teacher changes from content deliverer to curated and learning coach
  • Design … driving the usability and interaction across devices, easy and inspiring to engage with
  • Journey … an ongoing experience, throughout school years, but also through work and life too

Each year we build on what we did previously. The “smart book” definition and development this links well with the more creative approach of the previous year, when we imagined what a future book could look like. Looking back, with the new DNA model to help us, it actually makes a lot of sense. The challenge of course is to make it happen. There is no question that people still want books, but we do have an incredible opportunity to innovate – to make them more relevant, more valuable and more profitable.

Here is a look back at what we did previously:

Look beyond the book

Most books start with an author and idea, then seek an audience. We wanted to start from the target audience, their issues and aspirations. Design thinking is all about finding the right problem to solve, by understanding people more deeply, then quickly developing hypotheses and concepts to help stretch and shape their ideas further.

Insights that emerged, applicable to all books, included:

  • “Book” is a bigger concept than a book … content which can be shared in any format and platform, which can also be interactive and evolving over time. It’s therefore more than content too.
  • “Connect, context, content” … Start with the audience, develop a title and solution around their context, and only then create focused and relevant content.
  • Develop a thread beyond a physical book … that starts from where the audience starts, then connect platforms to share initial knowledge, building interaction over time.

Design the right experience … platforms and content, conversations and community

Having agreed a clear direction for the concept, we were now more easily able to focus on the user experience. Starting from the different audience motivations, to follow a journey through which the book can be introduced, stimulate, facilitate, support and keep evolving over time. This includes how to combines apps, websites, books of different formats, events, workshops and interactions. Only once the user experience is defined, should we think about the production process, including for example how digital technologies can deliver new business models (like pay per chapter), custom branded (like sponsors), personalised content, global delivery on demand, and the ability to stay updated.

Insights that emerged, applicable to all books, included:

  • Each platform has purpose … each format of content (app, website, book, etc) has a distinct, complementary and supporting purpose, creating a value-adding (amplifying) user journey.
  • Content beyond words … Text is heavy and dry. Think how to use different types of graphics – from cartoons to photos, infographics, lists, Q&A, dialogue, video, podcasts, more.
  • Content to conversation to community … communication is by definition two-way, but books limit this. How to use multi formats to create interaction, a conversation that grows as a movement.

Engage and grow together … engage people deeper, enable more, grow the book

Most publishers are incredibly poor at marketing their books. It is published and forgotten within weeks (maybe days). Yet books are just the starting point – of a conversation, of a community. They are the idea catalysts to build interaction, define an agenda, mobilise people and interest and actions. This is how people get more value, and where publishers can realise more value, and drive profitable growth. What is the market model (distribution channels, pricing formats and levels, business model, communication activity)? How will the book be activated and sustained (interplay of formats and audiences, relationship building, updating content, adding new, building conversation, a real community, building a brand)?

Insights that emerged, applicable to all books, included:

  • Engage people creatively … more human, more distinctive, more meaningful pre-launch promotional activity, then gradual launch of formats/packages (like movie launches).
  • Modular pricing … Packaging of content “HML” for pricing, with options for micro/custom payments (e.g. chapters) or inclusive (subscription). Freemium to make access simple bottom-up.
  • The growing book … keep refreshing, adding, reinventing the concept so that the book evolves over time, getting richer and better. Becoming a brand beyond a book.

Read more about last year’s event

The next Future Book Forum will take place on 20-22 November 2018.


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