Publishing Experiences

February 17, 2011

Yesterday, I spoke at Tools of Change in New York, about the reading experience. Primarily, making the case that it’s the job of publishers to enable the reading experience, and this is one of the many reason they should be getting involved in the social reading revolution (other buzzwords are available) which is about to hit the industry. (The full video is available online, and embedded at the end of this post).

The hook I used was one which I have been thinking about ever since I was an active editor myself, long before this social stuff was even on my mind, and this is how it goes…

Book Packshots

These are all adverts from last Sunday’s New York Times. It’s a small sample, but I know it’s representative. These are packshots with endorsements. They’re pictures of a physical product, with some effusive words that we all know mean relatively little. And this is how we talk to our readers. Here is a thing: buy it.

And then you turn the page, and you see this:

And the ad for Kindle is not (just) a packshot, but a framing of a text and an invitation to an experience. It’s not about buying, but about reading. (There’s also the awful Kindle TV ad with the smug lady by the pool. Here the choice is presented not as book versus ebook, but ereader vs ereader. But more specifically, what you see there is two people actually reading.)

And here we are on the beach. This is Amazon explicitly countering the narrative that you can’t read ebooks anywhere you damn well please (while wearing a bikini).

The following images are from a brochure for the Sony Reader which I picked up in Italy:

(Feel free to make Tumblr-related jokes)

The people who’ve really figured this out of course are Apple. I don’t think they’ve figured out books completely, but they sure as hell have figured out experiences. Here they are on the tube: (picture via Preoccupations on Flickr)

And what they are showing their customers—who should also be publishers’ customers, but barely are—is that what they are selling you is an experience. That beautiful, wonderful, extraordinary time that you spend with a book.

An exception: these are a couple of Saatchi & Saatchi ads for Penguin from Singapore. “Escape into a book”. They’re selling the reading experience.

Penguin are the only people I’ve seen doing anything like this: but then they’re pretty much the only publisher that can advertise as a brand in this way. And this is not a plea for doing better advertising, it’s an argument for changing how we think about what we do. What those packshots reveal is a failure of imagination about what publishers do in the world.

And the reading experience is also connected to the writing experience: that’s where the value is. It takes years to write a book. That’s why they’re worth something. That’s what we never talk about. The next one is the best advert I’ve ever seen for books. It’s Ian McEwan, walking the hills near his home in Oxfordshire, thinking about writing. And it’s an advert for TV!

The reading experience includes the writing experience too: that bit at the end of Ulysses, the very last line, which isn’t Molly’s ecstatic soliloquy, but Joyce’s own ending, where he simply writes: Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921. And you’re like “Crap, and I thought it took a long time to read!”

This is what social reading is about. It’s about the reading experience, and the reading experience is really what publishing is all about.

Publishers are concerned—desperately concerned—about the loss of perceived value in what they do. Well, the value of books lies in the time we spend with them, and the time spent creating them. Publishing needs to recognise this, and share our passion for it with readers, not least because we are readers too.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alan Trotter, Henrik Berggren, Simon Goode, meredeth, Neal Hoskins and others. Neal Hoskins said: RT @jamesbridle: What I talked about at TOC yesterday: – why publishers need to rethink what they d … […]

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  2. […] this is not a plea for doing better advertising, it’s an argument for changing how we think about what we do. What those packshots reveal is a failure of imagination about what publishers do in the world (tags:publishing ad branding marketing ) […]

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