Stories of the Future

By Meriel Lenfestey

Earlier this month I was a member of the Digital Futures panel at the Guernsey literary Festival. This was chaired by Philip Jones the editor of The Bookseller.

Alongside me were Hilary Perkins who talked about multichannel at Channel 4 and Dan Franklin (Random House), Jeff Norton (Awesome), Mike Bhaskar (Profile books) and Tim Wright (independent) who all talked about some of the publishing projects they have been involved in as authors, commissioners and producers.

We were considering how the stories of the future would be told, with particular reference to digital. To avoid a focus on the technology, my own take was to look at the entire experience including how stories are created, how they get to market and how they are enjoyed.

How stories are created...

People have always shared stories with friends and family, and thanks originally to Mr Gutenberg, Mr Logie Baird, Mr Berners Lee and many others, ever increasing numbers of us are able to share our stories more and more widely. Public stories are no longer just the domain of professional authors, scriptwriters and journalists. The internet has created a global campfire with a cacophony of varied stories. And people love to participate and eavesdrop, particularly in bite size pieces, as demonstrated by the huge uptake of social media (Twitter, Facebook, vimeo, Flickr, Instagram etc.)

This growing confidence to publish will feed the self publishing industry, both for digital and limited run paper output e.g. Once publishers have worked through their back-catalogues launching e-books, their role in the creation of new digital stories extends from commissioning to supporting self publishing, driving contributions and collaboration from readers (bringing content reading and creation full circle) and in the production of richer interactive and multimedia experiences. This involves multidisciplinary teams collaborating and innovating around observed behaviour, technical potential, existing IP and commercial opportunity. Sounds like a very familiar world to us at Flow!

How they get to market...

The publishing industry has been in the doldrums for some time with bookshops in particular struggling to find a commercial route forward in the e-publishing space. However, things are looking brighter. E-books and paper book sales have dramatically increased this year (6.1% increase in first six months of 2012), with even higher expectations for next year.

This is largely down to the e-book phenomenon with Amazon's Kindle leading the way in the UK, but many others yapping at their heels in the coming six months. It’s an exciting time for publishing (although still perhaps not for high street booksellers, as increasingly paper books are sold via online retailers). So what’s selling? This increase is mostly down to straight text, non interactive electronic books... novels for e-readers.

I believe that the industry and associated copyright laws need to do some radical rethinking. The ‘old’ concept of buying and owning, and all the UK copyright laws relate to paper books. In the same way that the music industry has needed to explore new models to support customer behaviour, there’s scope for new business models in publishing based around the way people discover and share. Here are some ideas from our observed behaviour.

  • Access over ownership e.g. rental
  • Incentivising recommendations and referrals
  • Drive market in second-hand e-books
  • Sharing which requires legalising and monetising lending
  • Subscriptions to specific content e.g. authors, subjects, series and broader e-book clubs
  • Multichannel e.g. High street retailer as physical interface to mobile digital shopping experience

As with any digital service which touches online, the publishing industry now has potential to gather deep insight into what their customers and readers are doing, where they become confused or stuck. This puts them in a far better position to constantly improve their sales and products. However, as our audience illustrated, care must be taken to reassure readers with regards to data privacy.

How they are enjoyed...

Stories give us time-out; they distract us and help us wind down from our daily lives. This often leads us to look for an immersive experience, whether it is a book, a film or a game. This requires a medium where the interaction does not interrupt the experience, where the content is allowed to shine. On an e-reader, just as with a paper book, the interaction is kept to a minimum and becomes second nature. Even on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter where the stories are fleeting and the reader dips in and out, the interaction supports the experience, helpfully providing punctuation between elements. Most publishers don’t need to worry about this as it is a characteristic of the platform rather than the story.

The boundaries between e-books, apps and games are blurring. Many new e-books, particularly the more visual ones, are more responsive (e.g. to user input or geolocation), and provide more choices of routes through content or across different media. Each reader’s experience of the e-book becomes personal. The author no longer defines the story, just the elements which contribute to it. In these cases, the interaction design challenge lies with the publisher and the user has to deal with far more variety. The publishers must ensure that the interaction is transparent and intuitive, providing challenges or choices only where appropriate to enhance the experience.

This approach to interaction design is something close to our hearts, and the reason we’re called Flow.

It’s not just about the interaction though. E-books provide some real benefits over paper books. Yes, yes, I know all the arguments around loving the feel of paper, the price and not being able to share e-books. Tim Wright, one of my colleagues on the panel, pointed at Alvin Tofflers’s quote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Perhaps ‘relearning’ becomes the 4th R in pedagogy. Those who believe digital books deliver a poor experience when compared directly to paper books need to go back to school to learn the 4th R! Relearning requires opening the mind to new things, and new ways of evaluating 'good'. For me, a few things stand out with regard to e-books over paper books:

  • Privacy: demonstrated with the extraordinary sales of the 50 Shades Of Grey trilogy as e-books
  • Portability: Carrying the current book(s) with several options for the next books is a gift for business travellers and holidaymakers.
  • Tracking: For those of us whose loyalty to a book is total and complete whilst reading, but for whom the title, and author is a complete blank within a week.
  • Storage: in our modern lives carting boxes and boxes of books around is impractical.
  • Immediacy: I need a new book, I get one within seconds.
  • Enhancements: The ability to get a word definition or see what others liked.
  • Personalisation: The fact that I can explore stories to see the content relevant to me.

My closing 3 thoughts...

  • Use digital for what it does best for people
  • Be open minded to new business models
  • Practice user centred design and employ interaction designers!

What do you think?