06 April 2014
The Observer - Jennifer Rankin
In a digital age, publishers find innovative ways to bring readers books they'll 'fall in love with'
Authors on rock star-style tours, animations of famous fictional characters, merchandise based on children's stories – all these are now in the armoury of Britain's biggest publisher as it fights back against the decline of the high-street bookseller.
PenguinRandom House UK has sold more than 10,000 tickets for a gig-style reading tour by the writer Caitlin Moran, and has sold a cartoon version of Peter Rabbit to 15 countries, with potentially lucrative tie-ins with toymakers and chocolatiers, as one of the most venerable names in publishing moves into territory which was once the preserve of film companies.
Tom Weldon,UK chief executive of Penguin Random House, said that, as traditional ways of reaching book-buyers disappear, the company is looking to build a closer relationship with readers, to tell them about "books they might fall in love with".
"It is a sad fact of life that there are fewer physical bookshops than there were. And traditional media is declining – including, sadly, newspaper books pages," said Weldon.
As the books world moves from "a browse-and-display model to one of online search and recommendation", publishers are having to adapt to catch readers' attention, he said, especially when "there is so much entertainment choice out there".
Speaking in his first national newspaper interview since Penguin and Random House completed a merger last July that brought 15,000 authors under one roof, Weldon said his industry had responded better to digital disruption than either film or television, which had struggled to control intellectual property rights. "The challenge isn't digital; it's how you tell people about the next great book. Because anyone can get published now, but how do you capture the readers' attention?"
The company would also be going into "merchandise and branding like never before", using children's favourites such as Raymond Briggs's Snowman and Topsy and Tim – and would carry out extensive market research to identify readers' tastes.
Richard Mollet, chief executive of the Publishers Association, added that the whole industry was looking at innovations, including new kinds of content, such as "strange amalgams of books and games and films". Such changes did not "stem from a position of weakness" but one of strength, he said. The industry had a history of pioneering developments, such as the cheap paperback.
"Publishers have always been innovating and they are innovating well in the digital world. It is a very exciting response to what is possible," said Mollet.
However, a recent survey from Booktrust, the UK charity that encourages people to engage with books, showed that more than 60% of 18- to 30-year-olds prefer DVDs to books. The scale of the challenge is underscored by the fact that the games industry will for the first time have a stand at the London Book Fair, which starts on 8 April.
Jo Twist, of the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, said the £3bn games industry was complementary to traditional publishing and brought "an innovative and creative edge to stories" to suit a growing population of people who love playing.
However, Peter McCarthy, a New York-based publishing analyst, who has worked at Penguin and Random House, said publishers should think carefully before straying too far beyond printed books. "I am waiting to see how it really gains traction," he said. "I am not a dinosaur, but I do harken back to the age of the CD-Rom."
But even highly innovative CD-Roms and extended ebooks had "not broken the land-speed record" and publishers can still "do better with any mass-market paperback than an app", said McCarthy.
For the full article click here