NYU’s Center for Publishing joined forces with Publishers Weekly on April 20th to present a day of conversation about innovation in media. The names of the companies that presented were both impressive and less familiar to book publishing’s usual conference speakers: Vox, Quartz, Dropbox, ClassPass, and Vice were among them, though HarperCollins, Hachette, S&S were also some of the publishers represented.
The morning kicked off with a duo exchanging insights: Kinsey Wilson, NYT’s EVP of product and technology, and Sree Sreenivasan, now Chief Digital Officer for New York City and previously at The Met. Wilson had much to say about how the Times is broadening its purview – mentioning that ”Cooking” is now the most popular feature, behind Politics and Opinion, and thus broadening the paper’s audience. Both talked about the importance of the user experience in retaining consumer engagement, increasingly on mobile devices.
Two morning panels, one on innovation and the other on audience development, focused on how to bring fresh ideas to market. Goodreads’ Otis Chandler said that Charles Duhigg sent his own annotations on The Power of Habit to every member who’d read the book, in order to promote his forthcoming book. The company is focusing on “micro-influencers,” especially for pre-buzz about a book, which he noted has more than “an opening weekend” to perform, but still “kind of like an opening month.” He also said that authors helping authors was increasingly important, citing how generous Stephen King has been in his “digital blurbing.” Hillary Kerr at Clique Media, which has fashion and beauty verticals, talked about the importance of editors connecting with their audience, especially as they begin to reach new audiences whose demographics are outside the founders’ own. She encourages colleagues to ideate using an “improv model,” where each person builds on another’s idea to strengthen rather than dismiss it, thereby insuring that they don’t lose creative input. And George Baier from Dropbox, who once worked in publishing, noted that “silos are the biggest impediment to innovation.” He is impressed that everyone in the company gets a week each year to work on any project, and with anyone in the company.
Later, Chantal Restivo-Alessi talked about how Facebook Live has allowed HarperCollins to expand its marketing of authors beyond an individual book’s budget, so readers can discover unknown authors even while HC amplifies the reach of known authors. Meanwhile, in a comment that summoned up book subscription services like the now-defunct Oyster, Joanna Lord, talking of how ClassPass had to pivot away from an “all you can exercise” subscription model that was destroying the bottom line, said, “You can’t hold yourself hostage to the one thing that works; nothing is too precious.”
Speakers during the day covered a range of topics from the needs and interests of millennials (who are driven by digital in every aspect of their lives, perhaps unlike Gen Z, which may want more IRL – in real life – experience); to how to use Snapchat, with its 150 million daily users; to the advantages of digital first versus legacy, and vice versa. Vox Media’s Jim Bankoff talked about the decision to develop verticals like The Verge and Vox, each one of which has its own discrete audience, unlike, say, the NYT or even Huffington Post, which attract general audiences. In contrast to legacy, the vertical “has to live or die” by the content it offers, and the loyal audience it attracts and can’t rely on funding from more established businesses. In another panel, Quartz’s Jay Lauf talked about Atlantic Media’s decision to develop something completely different from the eponymous magazine. In part, they imagined what The Economist would have done if there were no print magazine. For the first year of Quartz’s existence, there was not even a website.
Throughout the day there were periodic references to how book publishers could adapt the issues under discussion for their own use – and some energetic interactive sessions lead by PRH’s Kristin Fassler (Marketing), Atria’s Judith Curr (Content) and Hachette’s Torrey Oberfest (Digital). But generally the purpose of the conference was to present the range of digital voices and platforms, and trust that publishers would find ways to adapt them to their own books, authors and audiences. In the final panel, Moira Forbes, EVP of Forbes Media, summed up not just her panel but the entire day when she talked about finding, understanding and communicating with your target “customer” by continually embracing innovation. She and others also mentioned that communicating your findings and goals to colleagues was critical to success.
The audience, almost all of whom stayed through the last panel, was feted with champagne in what felt like a celebration of the multiple opportunities that had been highlighted throughout the day. There’s no word yet on whether PubTechConnect will become a regular conference for publishers to anticipate, but those who attended this year seemed ready to re-up next year.