Canon Discusses Digital Foundations For A Smart Publishing Future

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Canon South Africa illustrates the role smart publishing is expected to play in the near future. Publishers of content have an opportunity to use the data they hold on each user in a way that guides them towards other content matched to their individual needs, enabling them to monetise content in new ways by creating multi-channel experiences for their consumers.

2018 has marked some major milestones in the never-ending evolution of consumer preferences around content consumption. In July, the total UK subscriber number for the three most prominent online streaming services (Netflix, Amazon and Sky’s Now TV) surpassed the number of users signed up to pay-TV providers. A couple of months earlier, Netflix hit headlines when its value outstripped that of Disney, making it the most valuable media company in the USA. The disruptive impact of new models for accessing content is not confined to movies and TV.

When Spotify went public in April, the Swedish music streaming company’s first day valuation was R378.4 billion ($26.5 billion), and its share price has stayed on an upward trajectory. These stories signal a seemingly unstoppable wave of change in how successive generations choose to access, consume and pay for content. Old models for publishing and distribution are fading fast, even towards older demographic groups. Meanwhile, the ‘digital native’ generation is growing up in a media environment in which content is individualised to their interests, predominantly subscription-based or free, and geared to consumption across multiple platforms and devices.

In the book publishing world, for some time this media revolution fuelled fear that the days of the physical, printed book were numbered, but those predictions have proved false. Sales of printed books are growing while ebooks are in year on year decline. It seems that there is still a lively appetite, especially among young consumers, for content we can physically own and hold in our hands, in some cases as an antidote to digital ‘overload’.

The key here is choice: today’s consumers want to access content in a way that suits them, and for the publishers of that content to use the data they hold on each user in a way that guides them towards other content matched to their individual interests. This expectation of individualised content ‘journeys’ points to an enormous opportunity for publishers to monetise their content in new ways by creating multi-channel experiences for ‘readers’.

In the future, the reader’s content journey may begin with the printed book, an e-book or even a movie. Regardless of their starting point, consumers will move seamlessly from print to online, from the written word to video and audio, from passive content consumption in private to interactive and community experiences.

At last year’s Future Book Forum hosted by Canon, 300 publishers were brought together, including book producers and technologists from around the world, and asked to consider: ‘What defines the ‘smart’ book?’ While individual responses were varied, four key themes emerged consistently.

Firstly that ‘smart’ means well-curated user-centric content, delivered to the user in the format – or multiple formats – that suits their individual needs, with intuitive navigation between channels.

Secondly, smart books will offer open access, safeguarding copyright while maximising availability to audiences and limiting barriers to entry. In areas such as science and education the ‘open source’ principle will foster collaborative content creation and ensure that material is updated routinely with the newest research.

The third point of consensus was that ‘smart’ books will be intelligent, shaped by the behavioural data a publisher gathers on each customer. Interactive content will deepen understanding of the user, delivering ongoing benefits in the shape of more individualised content. This intelligent use of data is increasingly the norm in digital content industries; for example, The Guardian recently highlighted how Spotify uses data analytics to tailor advertising to listeners’ moods, calculated algorithmically based on users’ music choices, location and other data. This might sound intrusive, but imagine the benefits in an educational publishing context, of creating interactive content packages that adapt to continuous assessment, serving content tailored to the student’s learning style and areas of strength and weakness.

Finally, the Future Book Forum participants agreed that ‘smart’ publishing is experiential, placing the consumer in an immersive experience where the printed book is just one facet, leading to other formats and content threads which may include elements inspired by emerging technologies such as Augmented and Virtual Reality. This is already happening in some genres, for example the emergence of interactive chat fiction and storytelling apps. Readers of all generations will increasingly expect to be given the choice to become active ‘participants’ in content, and to connect with like-minded social communities.

Intelligent publishing models hold the promise of helping publishers to find attractive new ways of innovating and monetising content, for example introducing serialisation, subscription and ‘freemium’ payment models, realising the value of archive content, and enabling ‘long tail’ revenue streams such as micropayments, which may be more appealing to younger generations.

This vision of a publishing future requires publishers and their supply chains to challenge received ways of working and migrate towards a digital mind-set and standardised workflows that enable the frictionless movement of content, metadata and consumer data. Publishers and book producers who are implementing digital production models are already taking important steps towards this future vision. This can be viewed as a ‘business model ladder’, with increasing levels of digitisation, automation and workflow integration.

Many book printers and their publishing clients have already climbed onto the first rung of this ladder, introducing digital print technologies as a complement to offset production to service publishers’ demands for short runs without undermining profitability.

The next logical step advances the publisher towards book lifecycle management. This entails a deeper partnership with the book producer, using a seamless automated stock replenishment (ASR) system to link the warehousing system and book production. This approach reduces risks and maximise sales by dynamically adjusting production volumes to actual market demand for titles, rather than based on advanced sales forecasts. With this model, over-stocking or running out of stock and losing sales become problems of the past.

For many publishers and their printing partners, the pinnacle of their current ambition would be the third rung of the ladder: on-demand production, or the ability to efficiently and cost-effectively produce a single book. This 100% digital ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing scenario allows the publisher to first sell, then print, eliminating physical stock.

Financially, the on-demand model can deliver measurable gains by eliminating risk on printed inventory, cutting costs tied up in waste, warehousing and disposal, and minimising time to market for published products. A 100% digital on-demand model can also benefit the consumer – for example by enabling economical access to ‘out of print’ or minority interest content and encouraging publishers to broaden their range of content, rather than backing only ‘safe bets’.

An established on-demand production model can put book printers on the path towards dynamic or smart publishing – a truly customer-centric business model which uses consumer data and insight intelligently to deliver content across multiple platforms. The ultimate prize is the chance for publishers to create profitable new product and service extensions that match the publisher’s content assets to the needs and preferences of individual customers.

Now is the time to lay the right digital foundations, challenge analogue processes and mind-sets, and think freely in terms of the movement, sharing and monetisation of content. That way, publishers and printers will build the technology infrastructures and collaborative partnerships that will make ‘smart books’ reality and release untapped commercial potential for all links in the publishing supply chain.