Innovation & Stagnation in the Traditonal Publishing Industry

Innovation is conspicuously absent in the publishing industry.The Tribune Company did something that surprised me the other day: it released a new product. An app, to be specific. Newsbeat converts newspapers into audio, so people can listen to them in the car, on their iPhone and in various other Mobile scenarios.

Aside from Tribune newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, Newsbeat will also play content from news providers like CNN and Fox News. Stories can be skipped and, over time, the app will learn what kinds of stories readers – I mean listeners – will want to hear most.

Maybe this will work. Maybe people will stick with the relatively unpredictable and unpersonalized stuff coming from the radio. But the great news, either way, is that The Tribune Company is trying to do something different.

Can book publishers say the same?

A Record of Stagnation 

Ebooks have been mainstream for quite a few years now. Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007 and the rest is history. Print books haven’t died, but they haven’t really grown, either, instead hovering in a limbo of flat-line sales, suspended by a mysterious alchemy only known to the publishers that keep such data locked away from the prying eyes of the public.

To be clear, 2007 was seven years ago. The same year the original iPhone debuted. Think about everything that’s happened to iPhones since then. Now, 2007 isn’t exactly ancient history, but it’s not exactly yesterday… and at the rate technology moves today, 2007 really is ancient history.

Book publishers have ventured into eBooks lately, but they haven’t done anything that anyone would consider “far out.” While they’ve have spent a lot of money on lawsuits and a lot of time yelling about Amazon prices, precious little time has been dedicated trying to build a recognizable, solid, compelling reason for customers to buy from them, instead of the world’s largest online Whatever.

Do you really consider which “publisher” you’re buying a book from at this point? No. The brand has fallen into the background, completely devoid of meaning.

Publishers haven’t made a successful shift to an eCommerce platform and still depend on bookstores to do the rest of the sales. In reality, they’re more a back-end distributor than a front-end retailer. But that has to change.

In a world of commoditized, digital goods and an online market crackling with noise, brand is everything.

But how can publishers build a real brand that attracts attention? And how does that attention help business?


The Big Book Hole 

If you talk to self-published and independent authors, you’re going to hear the word “noise” a lot. Anyone who has self-published knows that it’s hard to stick out. Consider this:

Does that mean it’s hopeless? No. But it means that both self-published authors and publishers need to seriously rethink how they’re attracting readers. Like The Tribune Company, they need to consider other ways that books can be sold, packaged, distributed and, of course, branded.

I’ve talked before about how blogs can help sell books. Yet blog posts can only get you partway there. Then, it’s up to third-party reviews and media.

The Divergent Effect

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth is a funhouse mirror reflection of “The Hunger Games.” It’s nauseatingly poorly written and derivative. With one good description (water “like liquid steel” and one cool idea in “simulation serum”).

But media companies know that media sells books – and the reverse works, too. That’s the content marketing effect in full blast. One form of content helps promote the other, and vice versa.

Right now, the content marketing we’re seeing from publishers is lackluster and poorly trafficked. Penguin’s latest blog post, for example, has a lot of heart and fun diagrams… and six “Likes.” And try not to look at the garishly pixelated Rorschach test that is the default image for “Penguin Author.”

Penguin's Blog

The text is a ghostly gray, tip-toeing across the page in size 8 type. The “author” of the post is “Penguin Author” and the blog is on a different domain – stripping any potential search engine optimization (SEO) benefits from the start. The post itself is product-focused, not issue-focused.

So why would anyone go to Penguin’s blog? Why would Penguin spend resources on a blog that doesn’t work? And why would the blog work if Penguin doesn’t spend resources on it?

Publishers are worried about this whole “self-publishing” thing, because they seem averse to taking the risks and innovative steps that could help them become real marketing partners for authors.

By the way, some Penguin posts do have a healthy amount of “Likes,” indicating some decent traffic. But they are issues-focused (2013 holiday recommendations from Guillermo Del Toro, etc.), not product-focused.

The New Gold Rush for Audience

When anyone’s a publisher, the real value is now in an audience. Disney knows that. That’s why the company just paid $500 million for a collection of YouTube channels. When you have a lot of traffic coming to a website, you can shape the website to direct that audience’s journey – whether a big-time publisher or an independent author.

But what you really need at this point is a recognizable brand. Penguin’s “Blog” should be a fully interactive experience. With a roster of great authors, it should be easy to build up some recognition. One coordinated effort of “10 Tips from NYT-Best Selling Authors” or something. To a destination that’s not called a blog, but maybe “The Reading Room.”

What if authors reviewed books? What if an author created a short story package that was an exclusive eBook download for Reading Room members? Members who give their emails and zip codes for future marketing purposes – both online and in bookstores.

Couldn’t Penguin hop on the YouTube train? Right now, the publisher has just over 4,000 subscribers. Most videos have 50 – 200 views and showcase author interviews. Great, if you know the author. But you don’t, because Penguin is trying to build name recognition with YouTube, not tap into some existing zeitgeist. That’s the bread-and-butter of YouTube marketing. (“What Does the Book Editor Say,” anyone?)

An important note here: book reviews are a dime a dozen. Unless they’re written by a brand (famous author). Most people really don’t think about “book culture” aside from grabbing a book – or downloading one – and reading it. That’s the sum of their reading experience, despite Goodreads’ heroic attempt to convince people otherwise.

Reading 2.0

Book publishers need to take a more active role in promoting the books they sell. Since the internet has made everyone a publisher, publishers need to become something else before their primary value add for authors gets commoditized completely.

Every publisher talks about the issues with Amazon’s pricing. But if Penguin created an intelligent eCommerce platform that learned about a reader’s average book consumption habits – from books read a month to genre specifications – and then offered exclusive content from that author as an incentive to buy from Penguin, instead of Amazon… well, that problem might take care of itself.

Today, audience is absolutely critical to building success as an author. The more presence you have online, the more opportunities you have to continually plug your book. If publishers became the partners that authors desperately need by amplifying those voices with social media campaigns and content marketing, then everyone could win.

It’s not impossible to break through the noise. It just takes a lot of creativity. But that’s what a good book is all about, right?

Want to learn more? Check out For Writers.

Photo Credit: Baileyusa115 via Compfight cc

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