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Breaking Out of the Box

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Editor’s Note: Last month, IBPA Independent reporter Deb Vanasse gave us “Updates from the Digital Frontier.” The topic was so vast, we couldn’t address everything in one installment. Part two of Vanasse’s May 2016 cover story continues the digital publishing dialogue, this time with a focus on format, containers, and the larger question of customer experience.

Four vending machines in France have become something of a global sensation. That’s because they dispense not soda or candy but short stories.

Short Edition, publisher of the vending machine stories, is in some ways conventional, vetting submissions and paying royalties to authors. It’s the format and, perhaps more significantly, the customer experience that have generated the buzz—buyers make their selections not on title, author, or any of the usual metadata, but on estimated reading time (one, three, or five minutes) and they read from paper dispensed from rolls, resembling receipts more than typical books or magazines.

As consumer wants and needs shift, experts urge publishers to consider alternative formats and containers for their content, the vending machine being only one of a multitude of possibilities. Nimbler than large media conglomerates, independent publishers are especially well-suited to reassess the ways they reach readers—and to think beyond containers to the larger question of the customer experience.

Reimagining Formats

Throughout history, publishers have adapted to new containers and formats, from papyrus scrolls tucked inside clay jars to the introduction of the mass market paperback and, more recently, the e-book. In the information age, the vending machine stories are proving popular because modern consumers suffer from a deluge of information and a shortage of time.

Ian Lamont, founder of i30 Media, addresses these same concerns by publishing In 30 Minutes how-to guides, many on tech-related topics. In addition to publishing in e-book, paperback, and PDF formats, the company splits off content from select titles into “cheat sheets” sold as printed four-sheet pamphlets on high-quality card stock. From a top-selling title, Google Drive & Docs in 30 Minutes, they’ve also spun off a video tutorial sold through Gumroad and Teachable, with plans to launch soon on Udemy.

According to Brian O’Leary, founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting Partners, Lamont’s content is perfect for the new formats he’s exploring. “Genres with lots of components, or ‘chunks,’ and multiple opportunities for reuse are the ones that are likely to generate reader interest,” he says. “Cooking, reference, education, and some STM (scientific, technical, and medical) publishing, as examples, are good candidates to test selling components.”

In particular, experts advise publishers to look beyond the e-book, which only a few years ago was hailed as the latest, greatest container innovation. “Books keep the reader in their sealed world, and devices and software don’t facilitate sharing of favorite passages or recommending a book to others,” explains Pronoun CEO Josh Brody. “Response-friendly formats can play a larger role in your digital publishing strategy. Free excerpts on Wattpad can facilitate a discussion; a post on Medium can get comments, and such posts are more widely shared.”

Josie Cellone, publisher at Pixure Book Publishing, is building her entire line around response-friendly formats by developing interactive book apps for iOS and Android. “We believe there’s untapped potential (pun intended) in touch-screen technology,” says Cellone. “Mobile devices allow us to tell stories in a nonlinear way. We are working on new manuscripts that allow the reader to go backwards in a story, scroll up in a scene, or double-click deeper into a page to explore elements in a multimedia way that you can’t do in a physical book. We don’t want to be locked into a fixed format screen.”

Digital publishing expert Peter Brantley of the University of California, Davis, University Library, applauds publishers such as Cellone who look to digital content to enhance thinking about narrative structure. “The opportunities for a revitalized collaboration between authors and publishers on digital texts have yet to be fully realized,” says Brantley.

In the future, he predicts e-books and other digital publications will function as well-designed websites, though they won’t necessarily look the part. “Even today,” Brantley points out, “e-books are sometimes presented through simple browsers on a small, thin linux computer that readers know as a Kindle.”

Mary Alice Elcock, vice president for content at Shelfie, agrees that the full potential of digital has yet to be realized. “There’s a really exciting e-book format just waiting to happen, one that isn’t tied to a device that’s packaged to look exactly like a book,” she says. As one example of format innovation, she cites NYT VR, a virtual reality phone app from the New York Times that simulates immersive scenes.

Reframing the Narrative

At the onset of the digital revolution, publishers fixated on which format would prevail—digital or print. More and more, it appears that this either/or thinking diverts publishers from the greater question of consumer choice.

By facilitating downloads of e-book and audiobook editions by readers who already own the print version, Shelfie is one company that aims to “liberate reading from format and allow our customers to read whenever and however they want,” Elcock says.

Digital publishing expert Joe Wikert, publishing president of Our Sunday Visitor, also urges publishers to think less about which formats will prevail and more about the ways that digital can complement print without necessarily replacing it. “Think about how companion apps and other digital services can provide an even richer content consumption experience,” he suggests.

Wikert recommends book sample pages as a great place to start. “What can publishers do to provide richer, deeper samples, preferably direct to consumers rather than simply through retailers? That’s the sort of question publishers need to ask themselves,” he says.

At Misadventures Media, publisher Carla King is addressing that question with a strategy that includes making pre-published titles available on platforms such as Leanpub, Gumroad, and Patreon. “This allows us to provide iterative or serial versions of the books for the authors’ current super fans, she explains. “These super fans fund the development of the book as well as encouraging and energizing the authors.” Mapping data, community participation, and reviews make the adventure travel market an especially good niche for this sort of experimentation, she says.

Digital media expert Richard Nash lauds publishers who allow consumer needs to drive their choices regarding formats and containers. “Companies have to be thinking holistically about what it is they do, and, more specifically, what problem they solve for their customers, not what formats they use,” he explains. “What are their users hiring the content to do for them? That, and really only that, determines what format it should be in.”

Like Nash, O’Leary warns against “container-first” models that restrict publishing to particular formats.

“If we can look first to audiences and [how to] better meet their needs, we’ll find new audiences that want more interactivity, greater focus, or the ability to customize digital content,” he says. “We just have to reframe the narrative.”

To accomplish this, O’Leary suggests publishers first consider purpose, not format. They should tap the web to find their audience and determine the ways in which their audience can find them. Finally, they should identify, understand, and solve the problems faced by their audience. Only then, says O’Leary, can they make informed decisions about format and containers.

Leading Change

As paradigms shift, publishers should actively seek ways to learn from one another, Wikert advises. “Don’t reinvent the wheel and invest resources making mistakes or pursuing a dead end when other publishers have already learned that lesson before you,” he says.

With regard to the dizzying array of digital possibilities, Brantley recommends that publishers engage with one another through organizations such as the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). “Publishers should not be just following, but actively participating, in the development of future digital publishing standards by the IDPF and the W3C,” he says.

Those who want to join the conversations about digital standards can subscribe to the mailing list for the IDPF EPUB 3.1 working group at idpf.org/forums. They can also participate in the W3C’s public discussion on digital publishing at w3.org/dpub/IG/wiki/Main_Page.

Through such dialogues, publishers can help shape a future of exciting possibilities for readers. “When more authors and publishers realize and leverage the exhilarating freedom of digital publishing, we’ll see wilder experiments, startling moments of brilliance, and mass audiences where no one ever expected to find them,” says Brody.

Whether the printed word reaches readers through an interactive app or a vending machine, the user experience should remain the primary concern. “Listen to your customers and try to understand as deeply as possible what role you as a publisher play in their lives,” Nash says. “Everything else follows from that.”

Continue the Conversation

The experts interviewed in this article are some of the top digital minds in the industry. If you’d like to learn more about their work or call on them for further advice, here’s how to find them.

Peter Brantley
Director of Online Strategy, UC Davis University Library, and Convener, Books in Browsers

Josh Brody, CEO, Pronoun
pronoun.com | josh@pronoun.com

Josie Cellone Publisher, Pixure Book Publishing
pixurebooks.com | hello@pixurebooks.com | facebook.com/pixurebooks | @pixurebooks

Mary Alice Elcock, Vice President for Content, Shelfie
maryalice.elcock@bitlit.com | shelfie.com

Carla King Publisher, Misadventures Media
carla@carlaking.com | authorfriendly.com

Ian Lamont Founder, i30 Media
ian@in30minutes.com | in30minutes.com | @in30minutes

Richard Nash, Digital Media Expert
rnash@rnash.com | rnash.com

Brian F. O’Leary, Principal, Magellan Media Consulting Partners
brian@magellanmediapartners.com | magellanmediapartners.com

Joe Wikert, Publishing President, Our Sunday Visitor

About the Author:

Deb VanasseDeb Vanasse, who cofounded 49 Writers and created author co-op Running Fox Books, is the author of 17 books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and What Every Author Should KnowWealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold.

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