I spent Friday at PSFK's Trends, Ideas and New Marketing conference where I spoke about the work we've been doing at Penguin on putting some zing into our products and into our marketing. I think it went OK and it was interesting to be one of a small number of speakers who came from outside the advertising community. I was definitely a bit overshadowed by the speaker who followed me, Dan Hon from Mindcandy who blew everyone's minds with his talk about ARG (alternate reality game) Perplex City. The dedication shown by players of this game make the average author stalker look amateurish. For example, the fiendish game developers encoded a vital clue using military grade encryption that would require a supercomputer to hack. Unperturbed, a group of players wrote a programme that would distribute code cracking software around thousands of computers and got to work - Dan still reckons it will take them a year or so to break the cypher.
Since many of the attendees are bloggers I am now anxiously searching (O fragile ego) for opinions on my talk. I-boy's comment that 'it must [be] really hard to be a book marketer presenting at a trends conference full of hipster planners and creative types' made me wonder whether us old-fashioned publishers are sometimes a little too defensive and insecure about what we do. When the conference was finished and people had regrouped at the pub lots of people came up to me not to talk marketing or websites or Second Life, but to tell me how much they loved books. One attendee proudly displays the entire Penguin 70s range in his toilet; another bought three sets of the Glass Book instalments - one for him, one for his mother and another for a girlfriend who moved out half way through the serialization! This was not a books crowd - they are young, hip, advertising and digital marketing folk - but clearly they love books and love talking about books and it gave me reassurance that if we are in an era when 'All markets are conversations', books and stories will continue to be a talking point.
Then I read this fascinating and challenging speech from the American Publishers Association conference (though I can't claim to have fully digested it yet). Mike Shatzkin, like I-boy, clearly thinks that these are incredibly challenging times for publishers. He argues that the sort of broad content that publishers like Penguin offer is simply becoming less and less relevant in an niche-driven digital marketplace. Instead of trying to monetize content, he suggests, publishers will need to reinvent content to appeal to niches rather than mass communities, and to use that content as a tool to monetize communities.*
The dramatic changes that Shatzkin predicts for the publishing business are already underway. Our sister company, Dorling Kindersley, makes an increasing amount of its income licensing pieces of its reference content online and recently announced bold plans to allow people to produce their own customised travel guides. Simon and Schuster in the States have entered into a relationship with a predictions market in a bid to second-guess the reading tastes of the general public. And online self-publishing outfits such as Lulu and Blurb allow anyone to produce well-made copies of their own writings, drawing or photography and market them to niche audiences through blogs or email, challenging the big trade (and independent) publishers whose business model forces them to publish titles that will generate a certain level of sales.
Every now and again it seems a certain nihilism engulfs the books business. What's the point of all this hard work finding new writers, editing their books and marketing them to recalcitrant bookshops when everyone is going to be playing shoot'em'ups on their Wiis while browsing Joost on their mobile phones? But interestingly Perplex City, the ARG I mentioned earlier, is written by Naomi Alderman, a prize-winning Penguin author. So Naomi brilliantly illustrates the hunger for fantastic storytellers shown by both old and new media. I heartily believe that as long as there are people like Naomi who want to share their stories with a wider audience there will be a role for publishers like Penguin who are passionate about helping them do just that. We'll have to question the formats we publish in, sure, and carefully watch the market for changes in taste (as we always have done) and also constantly examine whether we are using the best tools to reach readers (ditto). Above all we're going to need to be willing to change, to adapt and to evolve. But that can't be too hard, can it?
Jeremy Ettinghausen, Digital Publisher
*More discussion of Mike Shatzkin's provocative article to follow.