Digital Lessons From a Moleskine Notebook

Even the most die-hard digital aficionado surely can't help but have a sneaky regard for the hard men of the 19th and 20th centuries arts and letters, such as van Gogh, Hemingway, and Picasso-who were all, allegedly, users of Moleskine notebooks with their iconic waxy black covers and elastic closures. It's been well-documented, however, that this impressive heritage is, in fact, marketing chutzpah, since the Moleskine brand was only invented (by an Italian company) in 1997.

But it's not all about the "legendary" heritage, since Moleskine recently announced a partnership with Evernote Corp. to produce an Evernote Smart Notebook, which is designed specifically to work with the Evernote iOS note-taking and archiving app. The page layout is optimized with a special pattern of dots, which enables users to take photos of their notebook pages and upload them into Evernote, where their notes will be searchable and archived.

The notebooks, of course, come at a premium price. As a Moleskine and iOS user, I've been mulling over whether I want to give the new product a try. And it occurred to me that the partnership seems to sum up a number of trends as I reflect on the publishing developments of 2012 and look ahead to 2013.

First, there's the importance of real world/virtual world connections. The Publishers Association, a trade organization, hailed a "huge increase" of 188% in the sales of digital fiction books in the U.K. in the first 6 months of 2012. Children's digital books and digital nonfiction books also performed well. Overall, the PA has identified growth of 89.1% in digital sales by value, while physical book sales fell 0.4% by value, and almost 4% by volume over the period. Digital sales accounted for 12.9% of the total value of U.K. sales from January to June 2012, up from 7.2% in the equivalent period in 2011.

Much of this is likely underpinned by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, which in the U.K., as elsewhere, has been a publishing phenomenon, spending 22 weeks at the top of the best-sellers' chart and becoming the U.K.'s best-selling book of all time, according to its publisher Random House, Inc. It's often said that digital sales have driven the Fifty Shades phenomenon, but in fact I think it's more complicated than that. Digital may have driven its popularity in the early days, but the book also became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, which in turn has driven massive physical sales.

Secondly, there's still a place for "old school," whether it be notebook and pen or the appeal of newsprint, and sometimes the characteristics of the real world can have a place in the virtual. Back in the spring, we reported that the U.K.'s Mail Online had achieved the status of the world's most-read newspaper website. But it did so with a website that would not win any usability prizes and is basic in layout and design-the key is the content, which is created by a dedicated team of journalists who know exactly what makes their core readership tick.

Then there is the innovation around apps and the importance of mobile. The London Olympics undoubtedly provided the broadcasting highlight of the year, with the BBC emerging as the unchallenged gold medalist in terms of the depth and breadth of its coverage across four online platforms-desktop, smartphone, tablet, and connected TV. The aim was that the Olympics would do for digital what the Queen's coronation did for television back in 1952. And there's a strong argument that the BBC succeeded in achieving this. Given that the BBC is publicly funded by TV, it is sometimes hard to extract business lessons that might have relevance for commercial publishers. But its Olympics coverage has raised the bar, in the U.K. at least, for consumer expectations around the provision of multiscreen content.

So what am I watching for in 2013? Few publishers have successfully cracked the premium/freemium conundrum, and European publishers will continue to experiment with the erection of paywalls. I'll be interested to see how open access continues to exert disruptive pressure on the academic publishing sector. I'll be watching the debate around monetization and disruptive business models. I'll be monitoring the outcome of the recently announced U.K. government review of ebook lending, which aims to determine how an e-lending service can benefit libraries, authors, and publishers. And of course I'll be deciding whether I really, really want an app-optimized notebook.