Notes from Publish! 2013 – New adventures in innovation

On Tuesday 24 September I went to Publish! 2013, a conference looking at innovations in publishing organised by Media Futures in partnership with REACT. Here are a few notes and thoughts from the day (I won’t attempt to cover absolutely everything, and I’ve rearranged the order of things a bit).

How to innovate

Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital talked about lessons learned from building Call of Cthulhu: Wasted Land, a Lovecraftian RPG. It sold about 70,000 copies at around $5 each, and took three people one year to develop. Rawlings said this approach has a big risk, as 90% of apps sell nothing – it’s hard to get noticed in the App Store. For their current projects they’re taking a new approach of rapid prototyping and iteration. The idea is to test the market, evolve the content, and see which bits people do or don’t like.

From building an initial prototype in a game jam, it might take two weeks to produce the initial version of a game. Testing with the actual audience will allow them to see which bits they respond best to – so they can then expand on those, and maybe even throw the rest away.

To me this sounds pretty much like a normal, modern startup software development process – rapid prototyping and a pivot. Everybody should know the flaws of a waterfall model so it’s no surprise to hear that this is an approach to be avoided within games and apps too.

Clare Reddington, director of REACT, talked about the “Sandbox” projects which they have been running since 2007. These aim to bring together academics and creatives to explore ideas collaboratively and build low-cost prototypes (Chrome tells me that the word “creatives” is a typo).

Clare gave a quick run-through of the various things they had learned running these, which I shall attempt to summarise:

  • First, collaborate with people who are not like you (in size, outlook, skills, etc) – although this is challenging.
  • Keep the client out of the room, as you don’t want people saying “that’s not how we do things around here”.
  • Move quickly and test. She recommends Leila Johnston‘s “Making Things Fast” talk (which I have just watched – and I concur, this is highly worth 20 minutes of your time).
  • Throw away your ego, as you’re only as good as the current project you’re working on.
  • Don’t forget despite all this technology, the audience still have the same desires – to be informed and entertained.
  • Be coherent – remember that just because you can add interactivity doesn’t mean you should.
  • Make it simple or you will lose people along the way.
  • Share and share more – questions and failings.
  • And finally, “innovation” does not just mean “apps”.

Clare said she is tired of the “fetishisation of failure”: Making something that turns out different to what you set out to do is not failure. Taking longer than you meant to, or moving on to something else, is not failure.

Diana Stepner from Pearson spoke about the Future Technologies department that she heads up. The idea is that it acts like a startup within a big company (which is the kind of thing I seem to be hearing from recruiters a lot recently, which is a sign of how fashionable being a startup or working like one has become). The aim is to make Pearson more open to innovation, in a number of ways. One way is to make content available for people outside, via Pearson Developer, which allows people to create mashups using content from, for example, Penguin Classics. She cited some examples of people creating mashups that explore how food or music relates to the content of a book – though it wasn’t clear to me how this worked or what the point was. The second method of innovation was to run internal hackathons – instead of starting a project with a lot of meetings and documentation, they now take an initial idea, and see what they can do with it over a 24 or 48 hour period. This is then built up into a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Once again, here is an example of a company taking an approach to innovation which doesn’t seem all that surprising to me, but really is still quite novel within larger companies.

Solving genuine needs and sharing knowledge

Chris Yapp of IT Futures and Scenarios said that we are currently in a time of great experimentation. Over the next 20 years or so, we will see a lot of creativity and failure. We can be sure the sector as a whole will grow, even though looking at individual projects, each one is risky. He says projects should start by looking at unfulfilled needs, instead of starting at the technology. He gave the example of a Nigella Lawson cookbook app which is voice activated, which sounds gimmicky but does in fact solves an actual problem, as when you’re cooking you often have stuff on your hands.

Trevor Klein, Head of Development at Somethin’ Else, said that the experimentation won’t just be for the next 20 years – the status quo now will be constant new technology, new platforms, new niches, new formats and new models. Publishers will need to choose which ones to move into, or whether to let others make mistakes first. He says that currently, innovation is often pretty bad – as some people pay no thought to the outcome or what the value is of their project, or how they will learn from it, or apply that knowledge to their business. Many people are losing money by making the same mistakes others have already made, so there is a need for much more sharing of knowledge.

Examples of innovation

James Huggins from Made In Me talked about Mebooks, their platform for audio-enhanced ebooks. He described how their innovation was pretty simple – add customisable audio to ebooks – and that’s it. They wondered if that was really enough, but the project has been successful with 1,000 daily app downloads and a cumulative total of 250,000 downloads so far, and 750,000 books downloaded from their in-app store.

He said their innovation was more in what they hadn’t done – they kept focused and decided not to include pretty much any other feature. He recommends keeping it simple – “don’t innovate beyond what people will understand”.

Simon Evans, owner of Slingshot talked about their latest project Jekyll 2.0. It’s an interactive adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde, using bio-sensors – so parts of the story can be unlocked by asking the player to hold their breath, by detecting their heart rate and so on. It’s entirely automated, which means it doesn’t require a huge number of staff, unlike their previous project 2.8 Hours Later (although it sounds like they’re still making good money from that).

I’m sceptical as to what extent these bio-sensors are absolutely essential for the story though – indeed, when I asked Simon the question afterwards, he pretty much conceded that they weren’t. So, it’s just a marketing gimmick, really – but then I suppose you’ve got to do whatever it takes to make your project stand out.

Jon Ingold of inkle talked about their Sorcery! apps, of which they have currently sold around 40,000 copies. He spoke about their innovations in the UI for interactive fiction – using small pieces of paper to represent choices, which move up to join the story text when you select them. This avoids the ugliness of clearing the screen after each choice, which is what most existing multiple-choice systems do. He emphasised the importance of making the UI seamless so people can get to the end – and their stats show that 85% of their players do indeed make it all the way to the finish.

Inkle’s approach is to present the player with a lot of choices, every 150 words or so. By remembering each choice made, text can be subtly adjusted to reflect the kind of character the player is suggesting with their selections.

James Attlee talked about his project “Writer on the train“. He spent over ten years commuting from Oxford to London, and wrote three books in that time. After he stopped commuting, he wrote to train company First Great Western, suggesting being their writer in residence, and they agreed. He started a blog about encounters on rail and thoughts on commuting, and applied to REACT for funding to turn this blog into an app.

A REACT workshop put him together with Dave Addey of Agant to create the app. They wanted to focus on commuters who used the Bristol to London line every day, giving them one small piece of writing each day over several weeks – delivered with an alert at a particular time or location. Keeping it short was important, as they knew that commuters would of course be busy doing other things while travelling. About half of the stories are to do with the location you’re passing – maybe a local landmark such as Brunel’s Box Tunnel, or Didcot Power Station.

Although the author wanted “bells and whistles” like video and audio, there was no time to develop this so the app is kept quite simple.

It appears that the app isn’t in the App Store yet, and development is continuing with Alex Butterworth, as Dave Addey has been lured away to become an employee of Apple. First Great Western are extending the residency and they are looking to secure further funding. They want to expand by adding more writers and more locations, with the ultimate aim of creating a platform for location-based writing.

George Walkley, Head of Digital at Hachette, spoke about their investment in Encyclopedia of SciFi – this was previously published as a physical book (and quite a large one at that, with some three million words). They’ve taken the entire text and made it free online. This might sound like it makes no sense, and indeed it only works as part of their overall publishing strategy – they sell classic out-of-print sci-fi novels as ebooks, so having the searchable definitive reference online drives more traffic to them.

Summary

A few of the same points kept coming up, which are worth keeping in mind:

  • Start with solving a problem first, not with the technology.
  • Use an agile approach, refining prototypes.
  • Learn by doing small experiments, instead of hoping for profit immediately.
  • Keep it simple – don’t try to innovate too much at once.
  • And please, please, please share successes and failures. We are all learning!

Many of these are pretty much exactly the lessons from Agile software development and the lean startup – and they apply just as much to publishing as they do anywhere else.