How to Foster Innovation in Book Publishing, According to Hachette Digital’s Neil De Young
Book publishers face an interesting puzzle. The amount of time consumers spend with digital media is growing significantly year over year. According to comScore, U.S. consumers spent 35% more time with digital content in 2015 than they did in 2013. Yet in the book industry, ebooks sales are on the decline, as is overall revenue, according to the latest AAP StatShot report. So how can publishers get out of the ebook funk and grow their slice of the digital media pie?
Hachette Digital’s executive director Neil De Young says that nurturing innovation is the key. Publishers need to set aside time for experimentation and find new ways to meet consumers’ digital needs. They need to embrace a startup mindset, which means making room for failure and regular iteration, says De Young.
But that’s no simple task in the book industry. The problem lies in the hyper-release schedule many publishers follow. As soon as one book is released, editors, marketers, and production teams are working on the next title. That doesn’t much time to test new ideas or take stock of what strategies made an impact and what didn’t. In order to make time for innovation at Hachette, De Young developed a digital team that works outside of Hachette’s traditional production schedule. The group embraces a startup mentality, testing new ideas and constantly refining them.
De Young’s team, which was formed about five years ago, has already developed several successful products. One of the group’s focuses has been the creation of interactive ebooks, particularly in the cooking vertical. One such success is Mario Batali’s Big American Cookbook, which has app-like features like grocery lists, timers, and video. De Young and his team have refined the cookbook creation process by using structured content to pull together recipes from various sources, allowing them to create a new cookbook in a matter of weeks, as opposed to months. But De Young and his team have many more digital challenges to tackle, like developing direct relationships with readers, building ecommerce programs, and introducing interactivity to fiction books.
Book Business had the chance to speak with De Young at the Yale Publishing Course in July. In the following interview, De Young explains how he has worked to develop a startup mindset at Hachette and how the publishing house is preparing for the next disruption in digital media.
What is the pace of ebook development when you’re implementing startup processes?
I’m not necessarily thinking about the speed to market as opposed to the mentality of try, iterate, fail, and try again. A startup isn’t generally concerned about revenue for the first couple of years. They’re concerned about eyeballs. How do I get people to pay attention to what I’m building? And I think that’s the key element to interject into the publishing model. If you make revenue the only goal in the beginning, it will become the enemy of innovation. Obviously it has to be a goal and that is our end goal, but if you make that your primary objective early on, then you aren’t going to innovate because your early releases will likely be a failure from a revenue perspective. It is almost inevitable that what we put out right away isn’t quite right. So you need to expand what you mean by ROI into things like showing our authors we are trying new and innovative things to break them out, or figuring out ways digital content can help us engage with readers, and building features that readers want or expect digital content to do. Those are all measurable and quantifiable goals, and if you make that part of the overall picture, it gives you freedom to innovate in ways that you could never have done before. So that’s what I mean by interjecting the startup mentality or culture. It’s being okay with failing but learning from it and changing from it.
What type of talent does a publisher need to create a digital team that follows a startup mindset?
At a minimum you need one developer or coder and one person who’s going to be the content editor/project manager. You need two people at a minimum. Every publisher, no matter how big or small can do this, and you can work with an outside vendor, if you need to, to help you scale successful projects.
What type of infrastructure do publishers need to support a startup culture?
It’s not necessarily the infrastructure. It’s the willingness to try new and unproven things. Anyone who codes is used to an agile environment, which is key element to developing innovative product. If you have someone like that on your team, they’re already used to the startup culture. It’s part of their mindset. Any project manager has experience in that too. So if the core people who are working on a project already have experience with agile development then you can succeed.
But we have to remember that 70% or 80% of our business is still print and that has its own timeline, it’s own marketing schedules, it’s own publicity schedule. That’s still the core driver of the business and you can’t interrupt that.
So our team has to adapt our schedules to that environment in a way that doesn’t disrupt the core business. We need to take on tasks and responsibilities beyond coding and project management. It means we become content editors ourselves. And that means we have to form relationships and build trust with all different types of groups within the organization.
The growth of ebooks has slowed in the past few years. Is the ebook revolution at an end, or is this a lull before greater disruption?
I think that digital reading is simply expanding into lots of different mediums that are difficult to quantify and track. Subscriptions services and library lending are on the rise as an example. Additionally, some verticals are migrating to mobile apps, we see this primarily in lifestyle and reference. I think digital reading is probably up overall, but it’s spread out across lots of different mediums that we don’t necessarily have good visibility into.
If you’re familiar with the S-curve, it’s an economic principle that applies to really any new business or new technology. It basically says that when there is an introduction of new technology early adopters take that technology from 0 users to lots of users very quickly, but eventually the market will hit a lull. However, the early success of the technology will embolden others to evolve it or create new business models, which interjects new life in the technology and a new spike in adoption. There are lots of different things that can create another spike. A new technology could come out that improves on the earlier one. Prices for devices could go down to $20 or $30, and those devices would include all of the feature sets that you need.
One of the biggest things is actually generational and related to education, not the general trade book market. When my three-year-old and one-year-old go to grade school and high school and college, I find it hard to believe that they are going to be carrying around a backpack full of textbooks. I do think that digital content will be the primary educational format for my kids and when that happens we’ll see a natural shift in the trade market as well, I do think that is inevitable, but it’s not going to happen five years or even ten years from now, but preparing for that now is really important for the long term health of any publisher.
What is Hachette doing to prepare for this future, when a new ramp begins in the ebook S-curve?
I think what we’re doing right now. You have to continually imagine a world where what we do today is fundamentally different. If you accept that that’s true and are willing to experiment, then you should be well-positioned to take advantage of the next disruption. If you don’t someone else will and they will be in a better position to capture readers when the next opportunity presents itself. So it’s just continuing to experiment, keep testing.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.