By Dan Kieran, co-founder and CEO of Unbound
The centuries-old publishing industry does a good job of harnessing innovation, for example, the paperback invented by the German publisher Albatross books in 1931 (popularised later by Allen Lane) or the Kindle, launched by Amazon in 2007. However, there’s one innovation that has always eluded it – going direct to the readers themselves. Now technology is allowing this to happen the publishing landscape is starting to change again.
Publishers have always been the gatekeepers separating readers and authors. The combination of a lack of direct contact with readers and pressure from retailers to publish more books like the bestsellers from the previous year, means they rely on historical sales data to decide which books should be made. If there is no successful precedent for them to point to, this makes it harder to justify supporting new ideas and original stories from a more diverse range of voices that are clamouring to be heard and read.
Now, using technology platforms, authors and online content creators are able to ‘prove’ their audience exists by capturing it through social media themselves. This combined with a vast amount of data to analyse, and more viable ways to make sense of it, means the radical tech-enabled evolution of the publishing industry is inevitable. This evolution will democratise the industry in favour of authors and readers, while creating new opportunities for publishers themselves.
These are the key ways in which I think the publishing industry will change in the coming years:
Award-winning books will increasingly come from smaller publishers
As long as the large publishing groups continue to use the same formula they will continue to overlook many potentially game-changing and award-winning books. This is likely to include titles that tread new ground or connect with passionate and currently underserved audiences that smaller publishers are agile enough to capture.
This year The Milkman by Anna Burns published by Faber and Faber won the ManBooker Prize. Faber is a big independent publisher, but they haven’t lost their ability to find and define the public’s tastes. But going direct to readers is also becoming a key indicator for this evolution – the Rathbones Folio Prize this year was won by The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, published by Penned In The Margins who combine publishing, performance and events and the runner–up, Mary Anne Sate Imbecile by Alice Jolly, was published by Unbound the crowdfunding publisher that gives readers the power to choose which books should be made (full disclosure: I run Unbound). The Indies are on the rise.
Data will be key to making publishing decisions
The constant advancement of machine learning and data science means it’s easier to generate insights to understand human behaviour and this extends to the books we want to read. It’s already possible to use social media data to spot new trends. By developing the right tools, publishers will be able to use this data in real time to spot new ideas gaining traction and commission books that capture the zeitgeist of the moment.
Crowdfunding enables the direct-to-consumer monetisation of virality that is inherently stored within an author or content creator’s online fanbase far more efficiently than the traditional model that relies on retailers. For one thing; you can sell more than a book. Going direct opens up higher price points than are available to readers in a bookshop.
At Unbound we have used more than seven years’ of transactional data to build a machine learning tool. It can be used to identify authors and potential authors with ideas that could be turned into high value books. For example, a video games content creator we identified raised £300k on Unbound to fund the launch of his new book, £100k of which came in a single day. We can also let authors know how much their book is likely to raise through our crowdfunding model in advance of it launching.
In the end all publishers are looking for the same thing – books that audiences will love to read. Data science can’t write great books for you, but it can show you where they are hiding.
Readers and authors will benefit from a democratised industry
By changing up the way books are chosen, and with new data analysis de-risking these new authors by being able to prove the audience exists online, even if there is no precedent in the historic sales data, a much more diverse range of voices will be heard.
The finances will change too. Authors earnings have been falling dramatically for years. Unbound already gives each of our authors a 50/50 profit split, but I think that a more equal relationship between traditional publishers and authors is now inevitable. Authors and content creators can point to their online fanbases – that they have worked hard to build – as the key to the value they have created.
Publishers will focus on engaging reader communities rather than traditional marketing
Many of the traditional marketing and advertising formats used by publishers are disappearing or becoming less viable and effective. With bookstores closing down, publishers have fewer opportunities to physically market their books.
Due to a declining newspaper readership, print media ads are also catering to a rapidly diminishing audience, and certainly not a young one. The number of book reviews are also reducing and publishers will tell you anecdotally that even good reviews are not the guarantee of increased sales they once were.
There are also difficulties in marketing via other media platforms. Authors are often neglected by broadcast media in favour of actors and musicians. New generations tend to value the opinions of their friends and others in their online communities, blogs and forums, over the efforts of brands themselves.
For all these reasons, it will be up to publishers to build a community of loyal readers by engaging them, listening to what they want, and implementing some of their ideas. Having a large, engaged community means that each book will have more traction, as readers will treat new publications as recommendations rather than just advertising.
But these transitions offer great opportunities for forward-thinking publishers – many of them smaller – who are ready to embrace new technologies and build a strong community of authors and readers. Looking ahead, I think that the publishing industry of the future will be one that’s better for all stakeholders. It will also usher in new generation of diverse books from authors with all backgrounds and interests for the world to enjoy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Kieran is the Co-Founder and CEO of Unbound, a crowdfunding publisher that combines data science and an award-winning publishing brand with an online marketplace. Readers pre-order books through pledging, Unbound publishes and sells them, giving authors a 50/50 profit split and access to an engaged community.
The publisher’s 200k users from 195 countries have pledged £7m+ to fund 436 books to-date, including bestsellers like Letters of Note and The Good Immigrant.
By predicting future trends, Unbound funds books more quickly and can reach instant, data-driven acquisition decisions. The best example involves a video games influencer, who raised £300k on Unbound, £100k of which in a single day.