Report on Byte the Book “How is Technology Influencing the Size and Shape of What We Read?”

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We understand that some of you can’t get along to Byte the Book but are still curious to know what gets discussed. So we asked one of our members, Chris Russell, to write a report on our May meeting.  Here’s his report:

Byte The Book continues to build momentum, and The Club at The Ivy was packed on 20 May for an open discussion on how technology is affecting what, how and why we read.

The panel, which comprised Ravina Bajwa (Penguin Audiobooks), Benedict Evans (Enders Analysis), Richard Loncraine (Heuristic Media) and Maureen Scott (Ether Books), spoke enthusiastically of the impact technology has had on publishing, and of the numerous different ways in which it has shaped form, content and sales. Crucially, all four speakers echoed the sentiment that the industry’s fear of digital is finally subsiding, in favour of a nervous excitement at the possibilities for the road ahead.

Benedict Evans opened the floor by talking about the ubiquity of technology, and how smartphones have made popular culture available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Maureen Scott agreed, explaining how her business at Ether Books has shifted considerably to ‘snackable’ short-form content, with 6,000-word fiction flourishing as people consume more and more via their phones. On the other hand, Ravina Bajwa highlighted the new dominance of long-form content at Penguin Audiobooks, where unprecedented consumer demand for unabridged titles (which are of course far more practical as digital files than they used to be as cassette tapes) has effectively erased the market for abridged works.

Richard Loncraine underlined that this is an exciting time, but it’s also an unpredictable one, and that’s part of its appeal. “It’s the Wild West out there,” he commented, pointing out that although he started app company Heuristic Media over three years ago, he’s still learning every single day. He added that “publishers don’t know what they’re doing – in the nicest possible way”, which echoed the general feeling that it’s our very uncertainty about the digital revolution which makes it such a thrilling time to be in the business. He also emphasised how difficult it is at the moment to make money from apps, something which Benedict corroborated by revealing that the current average app spend per live device is a paltry $1 per month. This will rise, suggested Richard, but it’s difficult to predict when.

Unsurprisingly, the enduring message across the panel was that content is still king, and this will never change. You can wrap up a bad story in all kinds of technology, but it will still be bad. And a good story will be gripping no matter the format. Music, sound effects and general computer wizardry are a wonderful way to enhance audiobooks, said Ravina (“the great thing about audiobooks is that the sets are so good”, added Richard) but, at the same time, you have to be careful not to trample on the listener’s imagination.

In short, the basic rule remains the same – tell a truly great story, in whichever form necessary, and you can’t go far wrong.

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