Rethinking digital development – issues for the publishing industry

By Frania Hall


In undertaking a presentation for a guest lecture I was asked to think about digital innovation in publishing and review the range of innovative activity that is going on at the moment. So I looked at it from the point of view of challenges that the industry faces in terms of digital product development and considered how that reflects on the industry’s ability to innovate – beyond basic e-books.


Looking at digital products and the way that can be innovative, with a focus on the particular challenge facing trade publishing, there are various examples. Take an app like ‘80 days’ which recast the story of Around the World in 80 Days into a gaming experience. Book editors, storyboard writers, artists, composers and game software developers come together to create something that might be a game, a book or an animation  – and which is, of course, all those things. Its navigation, content structure and approach to storytelling, together with the combination of many different creative inputs, all highlight the opportunities for innovation in developing digital multimedia products. And it reflects a remix of the classic story. As such it fits into the framework of a converged product.  Jenkins’ three tenets of convergence culture are media convergence, participatory culture and collective intelligence – this product certainly illustrates the first two of those characteristics very clearly. While not a blue print for publishing products it might be a benchmark as to how innovative something is.  The industry can innovate as this example shows and we all know other similarly exciting projects.


Also new is the collaborative approach in the development of these sorts of projects; the number of participants in the Sonnets or The Thirty Nine Steps is significant; the variety of people involved and the ways they work together is important for developing competitive new products in new market places (such as the app store). Similarly innovative are the ways sites are developing that are less around revenue generation and more about community building, such as ELT sites that reflect a subtle branding as a solutions provider for a teacher community.


But we also know that product development can be challenging. The Stephen Fry app that Penguin created was innovative in structure, navigation and design, all the more so as this was some time ago, but the highest sales were still of the hardbacks, the market at that time being still far from interested in book apps. The biggest problem for that, as with many book apps, is the price: pricing a book app at an app store price is a challenge particularly as the expectations of what that book must look like in app form are high. To develop a new product at a low price but with all sort of exciting elements is difficult. To make it still recognizably ‘book’ in feel, giving it a reason to be published by a publishing house, is an additional pressure. And there are examples of the print book, while being a much simpler product, being priced much higher than its very sophisticated and expensive to produce equivalent app. Meanwhile several experiments have failed over the years such as Black Crown.


Obviously in the specialist area many innovative products exist: so for instance legal databases that support different approaches to workflow and deliver the same content in different formats as required at different times is an example. The extremely close relationship with the market as well as guaranteed levels of income that can support advanced digital technology, makes it much easier to be effective in product development. The understanding of content and the ability to structure it effectively in these markets is key to successful innovation.


But digital innovation is not simply about the rethinking the product and working with content. Research I undertook in Logos (see below, 2016) showed that publishing directors are particularly aware of the way the legacy business model is a problem. We know in publishing that new business models such as crowdfunding are being explored; as well as recognizing that publishers are trying out different ways of looking at the market by offering services to writers for instance, or platforms supporting self-publishing. Indeed, the business model may be the place to be most innovative in the first instance.


But with all these issues there are some key themes that emerge that show how far publishing needs to continue to move in order to innovate successfully in the area of digital products. Some specialist publishers with the luxury of their direct links to their markets are much further along this route but the trade publishers will need to take a series of things into account in order to develop effectively in a digital environment. So what might be needed?




Change from the legacy model – the hardback still often supports the fixed costs of a title; the fixed costs /variable costs model will have to change. Each format needs to be more disconnected from each other.  The fixed costs of developing a digital product can be high while the price it will be sold at low – very different from the high price for the first iteration of a title which has been the publishing model for centuries. While the emerging way publishers deal with pricing is changing – for instance, straight to paperbacks or digital-only- nevertheless in the structure of ebook pricing, the old business model is usually discernable. Indeed some publishing houses still produce a digital product after the print product because of this relationship; the digital product is developed as a sort of response to or spin off from the print.  So the industry still gives the impression that it is attempting to make pricing strategies a compromise around old pricing mechanisms; meanwhile app developers have time to set up their projects as with new price and cost models, to experiment with pricing and not be distracted by traditional business models.



In other words, don’t recast a book in app terms but still price it in book terms. Apps are priced as they are – the industry needs to make apps along those lines – using the same sort of business models. While some books do work these often do so for a very clear reason around the content and navigational structure (The Waste Land for example); in most cases (beyond the children’s market) the pricing for book-based apps has not worked. Either publishers need to work with a formula that is right for high priced apps; and if so they need an understanding how to communicate that to specific audiences; or pricing will need to be in line with app pricing and that will then require a different expectation of the quantity sales. Different sorts of products with different models with repeat purchase options will need to be considered (eg fan-based or other participant apps for mass audiences, subscription or freemium apps for on-going funding of iterative products); all this is instead of simple products relying on the one transaction at the start. The scalability of an app business model will need to be considered at the start (and not linked to the book).So thinking more about what an app can do first then getting the right content for it may be a better option- thinking about content may not always be the best starting point.




Understand sustainability models differently – a book stored in a warehouse even if pulped is not as big a cost as keeping a failing app alive with the hosting, bug fixes upgrades etc. from which very little money may have been made in the first place; also consideration needs to be given to the ways to make an app last. Even successful titles will not necessarily be the ones that last – how do you get customers to come back to an app?  Backlist operates in a different way from a book market place and the cost of keeping an app constantly present in a customer’s mind involves both continuously developing the app itself and marketing it.




Consider the R&D model – accommodating failure is done by managing by quantity in the traditional publisher market – for every so many books one will make enough money; a model that works for content. This model is not sustainable for R&D into format: rethinking format within digital products will need to be funded in a different way. Taking this further, for a company as a whole, the one bestseller is needed to fuel the next search for content; but from that bestseller there is not necessarily the money to fund further R&D into format as well; the book content talent search needs to continue, so what will fund the development of format? And as format is one of the key selling points for digital products, the cost of innovation around understanding audiences and the user experience is important.



Consumer insight for product development. Up to now the rapidly evolving consumer insight departments of publishers use data to asses audiences particularly focused on marketing to them; however understanding changing consumer behaviour, reading habits and the brand loyalties and values will be important for understanding product development and user testing. These departments can also be central to testing use cases, user journeys, purchasing behaviours, user experience design etc.



The R&D model when thinking about form needs to plan around experimentation in a different way; the costs of developing form is different from developing content; while book as a form is well established the cost of printing the content and testing it out in that form is not high (though the cost of the content itself could be high and also reflect a bad investment); but publishers find it difficult not to see every product as final. A book aims to be done and dusted – once published it is a fully finished perfect product – app development does not work like that. It builds upon an iterative process of beta testing and versioning. Additionally lean techniques would suggest you follow the value (as can be seen widely) and understand the customer first testing hypotheses and being ready to pivot when needed. This is counter to the principle of finishing a product and presenting it to market in a perfect fully tested form.






The traditional model which has served the industry for so long is entrenched. In general publishers are taking into account changes that will be needed but many aspects of this model will need to change not just small sections. In al Publishers are aware and they are doing things about it but possibly not quite fast enough nor as comprehensively as they need to. Of course some may say don’t need to be doing some of this stuff  – leave proper app development to others but there are reasons why they need to be doing some of it. The market is moving and consumers are changing; competitive environments and the huge resources of global tech industries mean they will steal a march when the customers have moved on. Of course print is not dead; of courses technology is enabling fantastic advances in print publishing; but publishers will need to move into the digital arena in terms of format because a lot of their market will be there – content is not going to be enough, however good publishers are at finding, forming and managing content.


This article first appeared on The Literary Platform: