How can the book publishing world engage in a digital world?
Amazon’s claimed much of the high ground in the ebook format, and others are scrambling with their own offers.
At the same time, your traditional publishers aren’t going to shuffle wordlessly into the night, and they’re looking for ways to remain relevant and profitable in both a hardcopy and digital format.
Wellington’s Lisa Buchan been involved in publishing through a rights trading platform, sparkabook.com, and last year launched vangelizer.com – a Facebook-oriented vehicle for Literary Angels as a means to socialise books and engage with readers. (A story of Literary Angels kickoff and hopes is here and here).
Well, that’s been a middling success, so…time for a pivot. (Buchan was an early contender for the initial 12 week Lightning Lab startup incubator at the beginning of this year, but couldn’t make work from a financial or time point of view).
The result, the change in direction, is SmackFiction, a hot off the press Apple app (android coming soon) as a new way to encourage book discussion, reading and, not surprisingly, sales.
One of the first onboard publishers is HarperCollins NZ, who just before Buchan knocked on their door with the SmackFiction app idea had been discussing how they could reach young adults.
All see the mobile app as a way to encourage a younger generation away from games and onto reading.
The app features sample chapters for readers to browse, particularly those commuting or waiting for class, as well as entertaining articles about authors and their creations. People can see what their friends have been reading, and status points are awarded to readers who explore new books and share comments about their friends.
Individual details are kept under wraps, but libraries and publishers will be able to get aggregated reporting on their reader activity.
For Buchan, an ex-IBM executive, the self-funded journey to deliver a means for authors, publishers and readers to engage in a virtual world has been a real learning and adapting one.
Good Reads is possibly the best forum for discussions around books – though Amazon bought it recently!
“There’s no discovery mechanism to find a good book to read,” Buchan says.
Which is where this app, with its reliance on friend recommendation (which is shown to be easily the most powerful form of advertising) is attracting its sponsors’ interest.
Young people have little engagement with the web as digital immigrants know it; they live on their mobiles says Buchan – the time they spend on laptops is mainly devoted to video and games.
At the same time young people (with a slight caveat, Buchan’s focus groups have been young women based) have a huge attachment and love for a physical book (reinforced by this recent New Yorker article which examines an e-book versus a p-book)
Lovers of reading, want to share their interests, know what others are also reading – and having a latest feed update on a mobile is one way to tap into this love.
This comes down to a potential for engagement. Publishers will be able to (at an aggregate level) collect data, and direct their actions at something most likely to result in sales.
Buchan’s the first to admit she, and SmackFiction, are on a journey of discovery with the app.
Along with recently repatriated developer Adrian Parker, she’ll be seeing what works, what needs to be tweaked, and how to leverage public participation in the digital world with the (necessarily) private sphere of reading.
“As I appreciate more than most, it’s a punt; which as far as I know, no one else has managed to crack,” she says.
If she gets it right, publishers, libraries and authors will beat a path to her door. If not, it won’t be for want of trying.