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Things are accelerating around us, and standing still at the same time.

For all the talk of digital innovation, new strategies, experimentation, skunkworks and failing cheaply, the picture in the UK publishing industry still feels like one that is failing to get anywhere new very quickly. It’s not hard to feel that the innovations that are getting “traction” are those being driven by retailers – Amazon and Kindle’s effect in the US spring to mind – rather than by publishers.

On the other side of the pond, however, things are very different. I’ve just read the press release from Harlequin about their “enriched edition ebooks”:

“Harlequin becomes the first publisher to offer entire eBooks that are enriched with interactive buttons that hyperlink to Web sites with more information about the content.

[the launch title has] been enriched with interactive buttons that hyperlink to Web sites containing photos, historical commentaries, illustrations, sound effects, maps, articles and more, bringing the world of the novel to life without the reader having to leave the computer or the current screen page. The interactive buttons have been designed to be unobtrusive, so if one prefers not to access the bonus material, the reading experience remains uninterrupted.

This is, clearly, a great idea and one that has been talked about for ages, in somewhat mythical terms (”Imagine when we can dynamically update a book, or pull in information from the web” Well, this is it).

But when it comes down to it, it’s not that hard and – crucially – someone has gone out and done it. And it’s not an edgy, small, publisher, it is the “global leader in series romance” (yup, the same people behind Mills & Boon). Unlike most of their UK sisters, American publishers seem to have realised that innovation and experimentation are not worthless if the first try doesn’t wholly succeed, and have seen dgital as an investment rather than a cost. Harlequin have been at the forefront of this when it comes to eBooks.

Well done Harlequin – I look forward to checking it out. (OK, so the site doesn’t appeal to me, and despite having at least one link on the title verso, the “read inside” software can’t find any instances of “www.” as a search, but that’s beside the point here).

Two points. First of all it’s good to see an example of a big publisher doing something they should be doing, rather than leaving it up to the hackers (as Russell Davies said of James’s Bkkeeper):

[bkkeeper] is another perfect example of the sort of little service that some large corporation should have done, if only they had the nouse. I bet there are all sorts of publishers and book-sellers attending conferences about ‘branded utility’ and sitting in brainstormings about what they could do to extend their relationship with their readers.

Secondly, I’ve been talking to a few friends in the business about the struggles of trying to drive positive change, innovation and collaboration in publishing – and have been surprised at how long it’s taken me to realise that publishing is a very conservative and innovation-averse industry. And as one well-placed friend said (and I paraphrase),

“You shouldn’t be surprised. This is an industry that for the past 8 years has been told, repeatedly and in public, that they should heed the cautionary tales of the music industry. Yet for all the head-nodding CEOs and digital conference talk, what are we most likely to see when digital comes to town? Whose money would not be on DRM’ed eBooks, sold at eye-watering discounts to the major retailers, with multiple competing formats and devices and publishers still out of the loop? And how would this not be a carbon copy of the (broken) music business, catalysing a piracy trend that the industry denies exists?

I hope he’s wrong, but I feel he’s not. It is hard, as an industry, to feel that there is a shared long-term (or even medium term) vision for how publishing will survive, isn’t it?

I also noticed today the launch of MagHound, aka “NetFlix for Magazine Subscriptions” which allows you to pay a fixed price for a subscription, whilst swapping magazine from issue to issue. It’s not up yet either, but an interesting approach to the problems of the magazine business – from Time magazine’s publisher.

Posted by Peter Collingridge in Future of the book, Publishing.

Apt’s links for July 7th // Apt’s links for July 10th

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