Insights on innovation from the future (of publishing)

Nico Macdonald and Laura North from Media Futures introduce Publish!

Last week I attended Publish! New adventures in Innovationat  St Brides Foundation. The event was organised by Media Futures, who I worked with back in 2011 to help launch the Future of Publishing programme.

The aim of Publish! was to showcase cutting edge prototypes in a changing book industry. It’s well known that the publishing industry has had its struggles, and through a mixture of show-and-tells and panel discussions Publish! looked to demonstrate how digital technology can strengthen the sector and help it to be more effective in developing new platforms and models.

The day was split into three parts:

  1. How to innovate: projects using rapid innovation and low-cost models
  2. Future dimensions: what’s next in technology and new approaches?
  3. Is innovation worth it? Does experimentation lead to new income streams or is it too risky?

Publish! showcased projects that have been developed through the REACT Books & Print Sandbox – an initiative that funded eight collaborations between creative SMEs and academic institutions to explore the future of the book.

Throughout the day, the speakers discussed their approach to innovation. Here are some of the key takeaways – principles that are not necessarily news, but interesting to see that they apply regardless of industry:

Start quickly

“Go quickly and test, just start” Clare Reddington, REACT

Diana Stepner, Head of Future Technologies at Pearson, was challenged with launching a startup within the company and encouraging it to be more open to innovation. Stepner begins every project with a ‘hackstart’ taking inspiration from the fast-paced format of hackathons (she writes more about that here). The project team will look outside of their company to do a competitive analysis, but will then work together in a room for 1-2 days, eliminating the need to produce a big lengthy document or wait for months to get started.

Launch to learn

“Rapid prototyping, iteration, evolving content and testing the market” Tomas Rawling, Auroch Digital

Andrew Rhomberg, founder of Jellybooks – a discovery platform for books – asked “how do you launch something that you will learn from, rather than hoping for something to be successful straight away?”. He described how his fear of embarrassment prevented him from releasing his product early, but when he did launch, he started to better understand the problem he was addressing – what publishers wanted and how readers were really sharing.

Be open

“Share and share some more”, Clare Reddington, REACT

Engage with people outside of your organisation to contribute to the innovation process. Diana Stepner explained how Pearson made their content available to developers through APIs and then observed what they did with it. Tomas Rawlings described how writers can use social media and crowdfunding to connect with their audiences – and how this, combined with rapid prototyping, can be powerful. Juliet Mushens a writer’s agent at The Agency Group, has changed the commissioning process by making herself more accessible to writers through social media. She runs regular Twitter chats using the #askagent tag on a Sunday evening.

Think bigger than just digital products

 “Innovation only made sense when we looked at the entire publishing strategy” George Walkley, Head of Digital, Hachette

There are various reasons why companies might want to innovate – they need to consider how it will be of value to the business, whether that’s for revenue or for valuable learning.  From the audience, Baldur Bjarnason, reminded the panel not to forget business model innovation. He highlighted that many of the innovations presented at Publish! were at product level, whereas most major recent innovations in the publishing sector have been at business model level.

There are also non-monetary benefits to innovation. George Walkley explained how it is valuable for staff recruitment and retention – creating a more interesting work environment, and Charles Catton of Amber Books highlighted the impact of innovation on reputation.

And a couple of points about barriers to innovation:

  • Clare Reddington mentioned that trying to innovate will probably annoy people who are not asking for change –e.g. the contracts and procurement departments
  • Charles Catton and George Walkley agreed that time and resources are barriers to innovation. It’s difficult to know which projects to choose and back

Visit the Media Futures website for the full list of speakers and sessions. Thanks to Laura North and Nico Macdonald  for bringing together such an interesting and insightful day.

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