Can Publishing Keep Up With The Future of Reading?

Self publishing and Amazon have already changed the publishing industry more in the past 10 years than in its entire history, but it is just not enough. Publishing remains one train behind the changes to our world today.

Reading is no longer as valuable

Our leisure time is finite and is now divvied up even more with new sources of activities. Videos from YouTube and Netflix, games on computers and mobile devices, apps for everything from checking your banking statement to social networks like Facebook and Twitter now compete with the book for your potential readers’ time. Even if you just want to stand out from the crowd of books, it is becoming more and more difficult as there are more books that are being written than ever before. It is what Porter Anderson calls the Wall of Content, a constantly rising abundance of books. “Amazon is uploading over 500,000 new titles a year. It now has as many new books for sale as books in Harvard’s Widener Library.”. That’s more books than you can even hope to read in a lifetime uploaded every single day.

The way we read is changing

It is not that people are no longer reading books. There will still be the classics of The Hobbit, the big hits of Harry Potter, and school required readings. There will always be the book worms (or library rats in French) who always need to have a book or two going. Print books will still hold value as seen in the most recent Pew Report on book reading. But for the majority, the way we read is changing.

The typical response on 9gag to a long post

Young people are actually reading more words than ever before (Do Teens Read Seriously), but they are not reading the traditional books, e-book and print version alike. That is because the format of reading is evolving. The traditional book of pure text on a page lends itself to tl;dr (too long didn’t read). There is a shift towards more visual representation with infographics, graphic novels and webcomics, and embedding images and gifs like in Buzzfeed or 9gag.

Even among pure text readings, there is a shift for the shorter segments. People are reading on their phones or tablets on their commute to work or school or during a quick break. Medium has found that the optimal article is 7 minutes. China’s most popular web novels also release in bite sized chapters. But how can traditional books be appreciated by reading them in 7 minutes chunks? The standard mass-market novel is 300 pages. The pleasure of reading comes from immersing yourself into the world. It takes time to sink in and enjoy; time we have less and less of undisturbed by the bustle of the day and the buzzing of the phone.

Internet is the land of the free

The internet has become the land of the free. We no longer expect to pay much (or even at all) for digital products. Take a look at the music industry when people were no longer willing to pay for the CD. Many majors closed and the music industry was forced to look at new business models, revenue streams, and strategic partnerships. Now Spotify, Youtube, and streaming have taken over the masses. Games have also changed to develop the freemium models that now dominate the mobile apps in particular. Due to this, website such as Medium and Wattpad are becoming popular due to the ease of access and free reading.

Yet the model for digital books in the west mainly remains a carbon copy of the traditional ones. Although, China (and Asia in general) has made leaps with its profiting sharing model for web comics and web novels (similar to how Youtubers can make money off of free videos).

Authors are losing out

The model for publishing is a legacy business model, one that dates back to the printing presses of the Industrial Revolution. Publishers are big and slow to adapt to the rapidly changing world of today. Even with the emergence of e-books, the model has remained stagnant. Books are assets to be bought. The author and publisher’s only revenue is through sales of their books, both physical and digital. Ignoring the economic situation where less and less people have the luxury of buying things for leisure, there are more books and less readers.

The undeniable fact is that the market is shrinking and authors are losing out. It is becoming harder and harder for aspiring authors to “make it.” For instance, the cost of self publishing for a 60,000 word (around 240 pages) book is over $3,000, which is what Reedsy averages. Ignoring the cost of writing the book and marketing which requires your time. You can only sell your indie book for the averaged $2.99. Anything more, and people won’t buy. Now with the 70% royalty, and ignoring the hidden costs of Amazon, you will need to sell over 1,433 books just to break even from the $3,000 cost.

More recently Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited proposed an alternative model, by paying authors by pages read. Under Kindle Unlimited, authors compete against each other for their share of the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select Global Fund which is around $15 million. However based on the April 2016 payout numbers, the maximum payouts for 6,000 pages read was $15

Digital books will change whether we like it or not

Nighty Night by Fox & Sheep has shown incredible popularity with its interactive animations netting over 4 million downloads.

Apps have shown to be successful in rethinking reading and storytelling. Especially among children, animations with read-a-alongs and read-alouds have become increasingly popular (see Farfaria). Nosy Crow has integrated game-like interactions into a fairy tale story like with Jack and the Beanstalk.

Book apps are not just popular for kids though. Inkle studio and Choice of Games are among the players who are exploring the realm of interactive fiction. These books allow you to decide how the story will unfold. For example in Inkle’s award winning 80 days, a steam-punk version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 days, you play the role of valet to Monsieur Phileas Fogg. You decide your journey’s path and how you will travel: by train, hot air balloon, coach, and more. Furthermore, you must manage your finances for the journey, your master’s comfort, all while the time ticks down from 80 days..

So what is so compelling about these book apps? I believe it is the same reason why games are engaging. You are ported into a different world where you can create a new identity and feel like you have power over your own fate. Your choices and actions affect the flow of the story and makes the experience unique not just from the next person to read the book, but also unique each time you read.

Education is well aware of the need to personalize books and create adaptive learning content for students. Textbook publishers, universities, edtech companies are pushing for new ways to engage and measure their students’ learning. Similar to book apps, game design elements for learning has tremendous potential in the educational space. (Read this special report by EdSurge you want to know more about adaptive learning)

Why haven’t interactive books taken off?

Traditional e-books, like epub, have been successful in increasing their market share. However, enhanced ebooks and book apps have never really taken off for the independent publishers. Why? The market does not allow easy, affordable publishing of interactive books.

Look at anywhere between hundreds (using 3rd party non customizable widgets with iBook Author or inDesign) to thousands to make a simple children’s interactive book app.

Even successful book apps developed by large publishing groups with over 250,000 downloads are far from being profitable. There are high technological barriers and financial costs associated with creating a feature rich interactive book. Quotes for just developing a book apps can start at $5,000 and do not include cost of self-promotion. Only specialized digital publishing companies (Nosy Crow, Inkle, Oceanhouse Media) can afford creating interactive books in this fashion, and they would have a team of designers and coders behind them.

For independent authors, Apple’s iBook Author seemed to make creating interactive books simple. However, there are serious drawbacks. Books created with iBook Author (.ibook format) cannot be read on anything other than Apple devices. Although iBook Author allows export to epub3, the e-book standard, all 3rd party widgets and custom widgets will not be playable when exported to epub3. These books would therefore be locked into Apple and lose out on a large growing market of android users.

A future of interactive books

The digital publishing scene needs easy self-publishing of interactive content that can be accessible on most devices. Rather than the segmentation of .ibook and epub3, HTML5 will be the next format. Like how the ipod has died off, e-readers will become a less and less popular as more people use their phones, tablets, and computers to read. With HTML5, not only will it be possible to read books from most devices easily, but also wrappers like PhoneGap can wrap HTML5 into apps for both Apple and Android easily.

Disrupting digital publishing

My own company, Elementari, hopes to disrupt the digital publishing scene with easy self-publishing of interactive content that can be accessible on most devices. We want to create books that can only be made possible in the digital form. “Enhancement” does not end with a video or sound on a page. Even a simple blog can do that. Instead, we define interactive to include complex animation, variables, logic, events, and more. We want to bring the independent writers and artists and their creativity into a new arena of publishing.

Empowering authors

Writing is a real job and authors should be rewarded for what they do. Under Elementari, authors will receive fair royalties up to 80% and ways to monetize their free books. Similar to YouTube, authors can then earn money even from their free promotion books or excerpts. Authors have full control over what they want to make free, and how much they want to charge for their books.

Creators will also have access to their detailed statistics. The basic stats page will include number of views, reads, and recommends. The full stats page will go into even further detail on how readers interact with each page of the story.

Promoting artists

Elementari wants artists to use the platform to promote themselves by selling their artwork on the marketplace and collaborating with authors on books. Artwork can be anything from cover art, character animations, backgrounds, music, and more. We want to create an ecosystem where authors can find artists, artists can find opportunities, and beautiful stories are made every day.

The publishing industry is on the brink of a new revolution. We need to view changes openly and reconsider the publishing model from a blank page. New technologies have already and will continue to change the industry by restructuring business models, and rethinking the world of reading. It is up to us to anticipate these changes and act on them.

Originally published at