Yesterday it was reported that Amazon was in the midst of R&D for one of its most radical projects to date. Seemingly expanding the footprint of the brand as far as it will go, the blueprints for the project were unearthed by GeekWire  and would make the launch of Kindle, Prime and maybe even Amazon delivery drones pale in comparison. So what is this new top secret project? 

“Blue prints show what appear to be bookshelves around the edges of [a bricks and mortar] store, with display tables and a sales area in the interior”

Right. So a bookshop then.

Interestingly, that Amazon would have to join Apple and Barnes & Noble with a high street analogue to their online presence has long been predicted by industry commentators. But perhaps more widely, it reflects a trend towards a more balanced book industry that is coming to terms with digitisation, perversely via a seeming return to physical.

Three years ago the buzzwords in the industry were all about digitisation. Futurebook ’13 was awash with talks of ‘gamification’ and social media marketing was still seen as the silver bullet to declining sales. How things have changed. Who could have predicted that two of the main trends driving sales would be adult colouring books and lifestyle titles authored by YouTubers? At the heart of both these trends is a physical product.

But then at the same time, should we be surprised? With some notable exceptions, app companies are always going to be ahead of publishers when it comes to digital products. And when it comes to innovative digital storytelling, you only need to take a look at Naomi Alderman’s excellent Guardian piece to realise that this has already been happening for years. It’s just that the publishers are EA and Rockstar, not Penguin Random House and HarperCollins. 

But instead of seeking to compete, publishers seem not to be bothered. With a greater focus on physical book production than seemingly ever before, are we going backwards and moving away from digital?

I’d argue not. The masterpieces of animated cinema from the likes of Studio Ghibli and Aardman now rely just as heavily on coders and computation as they do on artists working with paint, ink and plasticine. In a similar vein, the true sign that publishers have come to terms with digital won’t be one-off flagship apps, but when digital is incorporated into the processes that enable publishers to improve upon what they already do better than anyone else. Having a 20-strong digital team shows a publisher that has an advanced understanding of digital. But a publisher that uses digital workflows and emphasises that coding skills are as integral to the editorial assistants of the future as learning proofreading notation once was? Now there’s a digitally mature business.

Fundamentally, ‘digital publishing’ is not about the products being produced, or a single element of how books are marketed. It’s about having digital at the centre of everything publishers do, from editorial, to marketing to production, to help amplify and better exploit copyright. In fact the sign that publishers have become digital-fluent, might just be when they stop discussing digitisation altogether… Now there’s a thought.

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