Five Things I Want Publishers to Know About Innovation

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Pay Attention, it’s 2019.

All of this has been written before, and all of it will be written again, because that’s how the world works.

A little context. I was invited to speak on a panel at Futurebook Live 2018 (November 30th, 2018). Expertly chaired by Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd, the discussion ranged from ‘what we’ve seen that showed us what new forms of storytelling could do’, through the value (or not) of consumer research, and finished with a spirited examination of story as world, world as story, and the value, and process, of innovation. Hence this article, which is going to pin some of those things down as words on a screen.

The first thing I want to say is that innovation isn’t a bad word. I’ve read articles about publishing and its relationship to innovation that have made me wonder whether the word is verboten in the upper echelons of this industry. Innovation, as I see it, is not the expectation of failure, is not driven by data-analytics that won’t let you make a decision until it’s been sense and market-tested to oblivion, is not… (I could go on, but will stop there).

You want to know what innovation is? 

Innovation is passion. Trust, and joy, and permission, and faith. Courage, beauty, and invention. Innovation is a conversation that has the sense to not know where it’s going. Sara said that innovation is about people, not technology, and she’s right. But how we approach and understand that is the difficult bit. How we think about people, how to prevent ourselves from being distracted by shiny things, and how we allow ourselves to have passion, faith, permission and courage.

Passion, faith, permission and courage are things that publishing has in spades, has in every fibre of its being. A belief in the power of reading to change the world. However it is evident (to me, at least) that the curatorial expertise that goes into creating books and the ability to make innovative things that can complement books are not necessarily the same thing.

We still, despite some politicians’ claims to the contrary, live in a world where expertise is a good thing. So here are my suggestions for how innovation might find its way into publishing in 2019.

The first thing. Talk to people who aren’t you. Really. It seems to me that the reason publishing exists as an industry is that it’s actually incredibly difficult to edit, produce, market and distribute a book if you’re not an organisation that’s geared around doing just that, and publishing does do that rather well. And that’s the offer to an author; that a publisher knows what they’re doing. The people you need to talk to about innovation might be experience designers, or technical producers, creative designers, or coders. What matters is that they have something to tell you, but you have to ask first.

The second thing. Marketing is not just about driving sales to a book. Marketing is also about the halo around a book, or an organisation (an imprint, for example). It’s about demonstrating to a reading public, or an author, or anyone involved in the book trade, that you are creative, original, clever, ethical, responsible (again, I could go on)… Those things are just as important, and they will, indirectly, drive sales and attract attention, but those sales will be the result of courage, permission and faith, not metrics.

The third thing. Innovation will cost you money. It isn’t free, and it isn’t cheap. If you want free or cheap, then stop asking for innovation. That said and established, there are plenty of ways to have this not fall entirely on your shoulders. The most obvious one (because I’m also an academic) is to partner with a university. We have access to Industrial Strategy funding that you don’t, but we make a stronger case for some of that money if we have a commercial partner. There are also funding opportunities that need to be led by a commercial organisation, but that are more likely to be awarded if you have an academic institution in the mix too. Working between the university and commercial sectors is how I’ve been able to make a lot of the work I have, and it generally makes everything more interesting. You need to be prepared to commit something – usually time, money or a combination of the two – and you need to share, but the rewards are considerable.

Finally, the fourth thing. If innovation is passion, then talk to artists. Who know more about creating something because they believe in it than almost anyone else in the world (authors aside). They will be mad, most of the time, and they might scare you a little, but they make the things they do because they they’re a little bit driven, because they’re passionate about new ideas and new audiences.

And one more thing, linking back to a piece I wrote here over a year ago. Failure is not what you think it is. Failure is getting better at something because you believe in it, and are given (or have given yourself) permission to keep doing, and to keep trying. Failure goes away when you start thinking imaginatively, when you think about what you’re really trying to achieve in the long term, and stop being quite so focused on the immediate measures of success. Not everything is going to work, but if you’re committed, and stay true to a desire to see change, and to challenge yourself, then if you do stumble, you pick yourself up again and get on with it.

Maybe though, it’s simpler than all of the above. These are all factors to bear in mind, concerns to be considered and advice that is well meant. But maybe innovation is just saying ‘yes’.

I’m Tom Abba, I’m one of the Bookseller’s 40 Most Disruptive Innovators in UK Publishing, a writer, an artist, an academic, and a recent convert to the Oxford comma.