The role of mobile in publishing – friend or foe? Interview with Judith Curr, Atria Books

By adding mobile barcodes within books, Atria Books provides readers with extra content via the mobile Web – not just marketing materials, but useful and interesting content, be that text, video, music or any other multimedia content the author/publisher wishes to include. Thus readers could jump from the pages of Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, to extracts from the round-the-world yacht woman’s video diary, by snapping the on-page barcode with their smartphone. This is “smart” publishing in every sense of the word.
Giving away H.G. Wells’ classic novel The Time Machine as a free e-Book, with a chapter from a new H.G. Wells-inspired novel, helped Atria drive Felix J. Palma’s The Map of the Sky into the New York Times bestseller list. So who says the e-Book is going to kill the printed word?
Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher, Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), is speaking at the Mobile Marketing Association Forum New York on June 13, 2012 (mobiThinking readers can claim a discount for this event here).

When did Atria Books first get into mobile?
In July 2010, Atria Books published #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel Fly Away Home. This was the first book Atria published with a quick response (QR) code printed on the back of the jacket, and it was accompanied by the copy line “SNAP IT. WATCH IT. Atria Authors on your Smartphone.” At the time, this was all still so new we felt the QR code needed to be accompanied with a fairly detailed explanation on the inside back flap about how to download and use the Microsoft Tag app (“…now hold your phone’s camera a few inches away from the tag image…”). The tag took readers directly to a video we had produced of Jennifer talking about her new book.
Two months later, on September 2010, Atria made a big leap forward with the publication of True Spirit by Jessica Watson, the account of 16-year-old Jessica’s solo, non-stop, around-the-world sailing voyage. This time we used QR codes inside a book allowing readers to watch portions of Jessica’s video diary at the appropriate moment in the text. We also needed to come up with a new name to describe this blending of a traditional print book with digital content accessed via smartphone – after all we were providing extra information via the QR codes, not just marketing material. So True Spirit became the first “Atria Smart Book.” We created a Smart Books logo and the slogan, “Atria Smart Books: See More, Hear More, Learn More.”

How else have you used mobile?
In addition to the ongoing development of Atria Smart Books, mobile has been factored into some of our publicity department’s work: they have dabbled in SMS to promote certain titles, but it’s still early days for us. We’ve also been playing around with apps for a few of our books, more as a learning experience than as an immediate revenue stream. Books with useful daily content are perfect for a phone app, so we’ve adapted the massive Encyclopedia of Healing Foods by Dr. Michael Murray into a Healing Foods app where you can look up a specific food and discover what its healing properties are, or look up an illness and learn what foods are recommended to combat it. We also turned fashion expert Lloyd Boston’s book Before You Put That On: 365 Daily Style Tips for Her into a Before You Put That On app that delivers a fashion tip to your mobile device every day for a year.

Which of those have worked best? In what way?
The apps have been moderately successful, but I don’t think apps are the future for publishing. For one thing, with apps, the customer has to download any updates, whereas with our QR codes we can change what information the customer receives anytime we like by changing what a particular code links to. Also, apps present an economic challenge in that the vast majority of them are priced so low that it becomes difficult to cover the often high development costs. Apps are a marketing challenge for publishers, too – we don’t know how to create demand for an app in the same way that we do a print book or even an e-book original, and if you aren’t in the top 50 in the app store, how does anyone find your app to buy it?

What is the present mobile strategy at Atria?
We are focusing our energies on creating and growing the profile of the Atria Smart Book. In the broadest sense, we see a “two screen” future for many types of books: one screen being the printed page, the other being the mobile device. We see these screens as working together to enhance the reader’s experience of the book, not competing with each other for reader’s leisure time.

How significant a role do you see mobile playing in the future of publishing?
Mobile will play a very large role in the future of publishing. More and more, I’m aware of people who are reading significant pieces of text on their mobile devices, and I expect this only to grow more commonplace. So the growth of mobile technology will change the way people consume books, and in turn it will surely impact the very idea of what a book is, challenging the norms of linear narrative, the standard length of a chapter, perhaps even making the reader a co-creator of the book through changeable or personalized details.
In addition to affecting consumption and content, mobile has the power to affect how books are sold. I imagine a savvy bookseller displaying book covers and descriptions simply as light boxes rather than as physical objects. By holding one’s mobile device in front of the display, the ebook could be bought and downloaded in a matter of seconds, with the credit for the sale going to the local bookseller. The communal aspect of visiting a bookstore is maintained, the “well-curated” bookstore can still thrive as a commercial enterprise and a gathering place. But it will require booksellers to rethink the very nature of what they are selling – are they selling objects or are they selling expertise, taste, and a sense of community?

In what ways is mobile an opportunity to publishers?
Mobile allows publishers, for the first time in history, to go directly to their customers and develop an ongoing relationship with them. On the most basic level, a reader can be automatically informed when a new book by an author whose work they’ve bought in the past is about to be published. Also, publishers can provide updates and additional content to readers on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Mobile makes the subscription model a viable one for books for the first time since the heyday of the traditional mail-order book clubs like Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC) and the Literary Guild.

How can mobile be used to help promote books?
With mobile, we have the means to provide readers with an endless sampling of our many products. We can also make linkages between books, as we did with the H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine and the publication of a new novel called
The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma. We offered The Time Machine as a free download (it is a public domain work) and included a sample chapter of The Map of the Sky, a bestseller from Spain that featured Wells as a character and drew inspiration from The Time Machine. There have been 1 million downloads of our edition of The Time Machine, and The Map of the Sky became a New York Times bestseller, almost unheard of for a first novel in translation.
Mobile also provides publishers with trackable metrics about their consumer base, something that simply has never existed in an industry that has traditionally been research averse, to say the least.

How can mobile be used to help enhance the reading of books?
Through Atria Smart Books, mobile doesn’t replace the printed page but instead enhances it with video or music or any other multimedia content that an author wishes to include. Thanks to QR codes, it is easy to move between one and the other and the possibility of losing a reader to a never-ending series of online links far from the world of the book is greatly decreased.

On balance, do you see mobile as friend or foe to the traditional publishing model?
Mobile will be a friend to the traditional publishing model if we employ it as such. There’s no question that a significant percentage of the population is rapidly learning to view their mobile device as a perfectly acceptable, and perhaps even preferable vehicle for consuming text, even in longer forms. For us as publishers, part of the beauty of mobile is that it does not leave our content tethered to a specific account, it can be accessed through a wide range of devices – and these are devices that people tend to have with them at all times, unlike a dedicated reader device. Whenever someone is bored or stuck in a line or waiting for “something else” to occur, we now have an opportunity to sell that person a book that they can start reading instantly. Once we improve our products’ discoverability online, we will have made a huge step forward, and we are working on that every day. Mobile certainly presents a host of new challenges for publishers, but it’s also offers a golden opportunity. If we take as a given that more people are reading on mobile devices every day, then it is the publisher’s job to ensure we are producing content that people want to read in that way and that we are making them aware of that content’s existence.

Judith Curr, executive vice president and publisher, Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), is speaking at the Mobile Marketing Association Forum New York on June 13, 2012 (mobiThinking readers can claim a discount for this event here.

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