The Business of Transformation at Digital Book World

Mar 10, 2016

The theme for this year's Digital Book World (DBW) conference, the self-described preeminent conference on digital content and digital publishing strategies, was transformation. It's a hefty word, one that conjurs thoughts of hope, opportunity, and for many of us, paralyzing fear. Don't be ashamed. Personally, I hate change. It's uncomfortable and difficult, but it's an essential component in keeping any industry--especially one that has encountered as many recent obstacles as publishing--moving forward.

If you're like me, though, and don't take very kindly to change, you wouldn't be alone at DBW. Presenters like Ingram Content Group's chairman and CEO, John Ingram, and the incoming VP and publisher of Disney Book Groups, Mary Ann Naples, both acknowledged just how difficult transformation can be. As Ingram noted, "Not everyone is going to make it in a transformation. Transformation is really about cultural change within an organization. You've got to be open." Naples echoed his sentiment, saying that we have to "look at transformation not as an end state, but the in between and what happens there."

If the major theme at DBW was transformation, the subtitle was failure. According to multiple presenters at DBW, we have to embrace our past failures and not be afraid to continue failing. This means trying new things even if we think they may not succeed. It's a scary concept, particularly when it feels like one failure can be the final nail in your publishing coffin. But failure can be powerful. Without it, we wouldn't be able to identify what we need to do to get better, and that's exactly what everyone at DBW was trying to do: figure out how the publishing industry can do better, now and in the future.

In his opening sentiments Tom Beusse, CEO of F+W, a content and ecommerce company (and owner of DBW), suggested that in order to see growth, publishing companies (and media companies as a whole) have to start doing two simple and very difficult things: track our consumers tirelessly and stay on top of technological change. This is sound advice, but of course, these two steps aren't a cure-all for every media company. The difficulties the publishing industry faces at this point are multifaceted. As Mike Shatzkin, the founder & CEO of The Idea Logical Company, noted in his introductory address, we're dealing with creating platforms of engagement, ineffective email marketing systems, and how to transition from legacy practices to digital ones.

Jon Taplin, a professor of media studies at the University of Southern California, acknowledged that in today's modern world, how good content is delivered can be more important than the content itself. Taplin said, "While I'd love to think that content is king, I'm worried that platform is king." Right now, Facebook, Amazon, and Google monopolize the content delivery world, making it very difficult for anyone else to edge in. In fact, as Taplin noted, half to two thirds of traffic on news sites is delivered from Facebook. That's an astounding statistic. How can small publishers (or even big ones, for that matter) compete with the media giants?

For starters, we can learn a thing or two from how they compile their consumer information. One of the highlights of the Digital Book World line-up was a talk given by Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz, a software as a service (SaaS) company. As Fishkin described, if you want to expand your presence, you have to ask yourself, who in your existing audience is going to amplify my reach? This could mean doing a variety of things such as narrowing your target audiences by looking at your author's Instagram demographic, homing in on their interests, and then using the information you've learned about them to target other groups that share similar interests or cutting down on the amount of static noise you may be giving off to your audience by limiting the number of promotional emails you send. More so, we have to start taking advantage of research tools that will help us zone in on our audiences more effectively. If you haven't already, try out Google Analytics, Jetpack,, and BuzzSumo.

And let's not forget our old friend SEO and its role in the local, global, and mobile market. SEO is a term that's been around for years at this point, and, unfortunately, what we consider SEO best practices haven't changed much in that time frame. The old practices of using meta keywords or updating the date of your content in you CMS don't produce the same SEO positive results that they once did. For example, as Rand Fishkin explained, while it's still important to use the right keywords, we don't have to be as literal as we used to be. Google is getting more advanced at linking keywords to concepts and other topics.

While there are many difficulties facing the publishing industry at this point, there are as many wonderful ideas being thrown around to try and solve them. This year's Digital Book World really was a meeting of great minds all trying to connect with one another and zero in on solutions rather than complain about the problems. The most refreshing part about this year's conference was the fact that no one really questioned whether the publishing industry would be successful in embracing this need for transformation. The more important question, and the one on the mind of every presenter and attendee, wasn't "Will we make it?" It was simply "How?"