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Testing for the future

Last week design and innovation consultancy IDEO released their thoughts on the Future of the Book in a neatly executed video. The industry response was mixed – ranging from ‘seen it all before’ to ‘wow, how clever’. But what struck me most of all was that, once again, it was a research and development project where people outside of the publishing industry had been sitting down and really thinking about the possibilities for literature on digital platforms. So why is there not more research and development in this area within  the publishing industry? Or perhaps these R&D projects are so shrouded in secrecy that we never get to hear about them?

Next week at Tools of Change (Frankfurt Book Fair) a group of us will be discussing the need for publishers to engage more heavily in R&D. Ahead of the session, Rhys Cazenove from Enhanced Editions emailed me to make an important point – that when publishers think about R&D they immediately think ‘tech’ budget which can be financially off-putting – but can R&D be much more grassroots than that?

Once a week I work from a creative digital agency in Old Street. The offices are set up to actively encourage their staff to interact and test out the digital devices that they are developing on – at any time of day. So what at first glance might look like young people just milling about in a studio, turns out to be a developer checking out a new app on an iPad, people playing on a Wii game, a group of people testing out a sequence on an interactive table. This constant testing out and daily use of these technologies enables the agency to offer their clients a real understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the devices.

Shortly after the iPad was released I visited a UK publisher with another digital agency – we brought an iPad with us and all had a play around on it for some hours checking out the Alice for the iPad app and discussing how it had been executed. As we left, the publisher said that it had been really useful just to take some time out and talk about these things – and that as a company they ought to set aside more time just to try things out and, importantly, think.

There’s something reassuring about employees sitting at a computer screen – it makes their employers feel safe in the knowledge that they’re actually doing something productive. Certainly in an office environment it might be hard for staff to feel justified about lolling around and downloading several book apps to their iPhone, sitting down and discussing the Kindle3 with colleagues, or creating time to think about possibilities for literature. But this is exactly the kind of space that needs to be created right now at publishing houses big and small. The strongest publishers emerging from this shift to digital will be those where all employees – and not just those in ‘digital publishing’ roles – have a good understanding of the implications of digital on publishing and a grasp of the limitations and possibilities of literature on different platform.

Only two years ago someone emailed me from a publishing house to say they couldn’t contact me on facebook anymore because it had been ‘banned’ in office working hours. It’s incredible to think that this could happen today, given that even the tiniest of publishers seems to be on twitter – presumably that publisher is playing catch-up now. But I think that this goes some way to demonstrate that publishers are often afraid of giving their employees any time to test out new technologies in office hours as this is still deemed to be ‘not working’.

Across the board as an industry, we need to create this time and space now – to use, discover, experiment, discuss and play around with these new technologies and grasp how we can apply these to literature. If we don’t create this time now, then we run the risk of being the ones trying to catch up later on…

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