Future of Books

Last night I chaired another Clever Boxer event at Soho House. This one was on the ‘Future of Books’, and we were privileged to have two excellent speakers.

Max Whitby is CEO of Touch Press, who are leading the field in re-imagining the book for the iPad. Their latest app is the amazing Barefoot Books World Atlas, while previous titles include an interactive exploration of the solar system, a fascinating look at the world of skulls, and a multimedia version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land . They’ve also worked with Bjork on creating albums as apps.

John Mitchinson is a former head of marketing for Waterstones, the head of research for BBC’s high-brow quiz show QI, and the co-founder of Unbound – an innovative new business that crowdfunds books.

Max’s demo of his apps was probably the most eye-catching part of the evening, but the discussion covered many interesting areas.

The money

There was general agreement that the established business model of the publishing industry is in a parlous state, and that innovation is vital (John was at pains to point out that people at publishing houses are trying to do great work, in difficult times, for meagre rewards).

The apps produced by Touch Press are reaping huge profits through Apple’s App Store – crucially with a greater percentage of each sale going back to the publisher, and ultimately the author.

Unbound’s model allows for a 50/50 split of profits between author and publisher – again, far more than existing models allow.

Opportunities for authors

Max admitted that the costs involved in producing their apps meant they wouldn’t be publishing any first time novelists in the near future, but that the author (and excellent editing) are at the heart of what they do.

John highlighted several titles that have either raised or are currently raising funding through Unbound that, for different reasons, wouldn’t have seen the light of day (let alone any money) through traditional publishing.

‘The Fall of the House of Murdoch’ by Peter Jukes (who also joined us in the audience for the discussion) began as a blog on the Daily Kos, and couldn’t really have gone through the usual routes to market given its timely subject matter.

Charles Fernyhough’s ‘A Box of Birds’ is a literary thriller with the a neuroscientist lead character – Fernyhough was first published back in 1999, but has struggled to get this book out through traditional routes every since.

And while ‘We Can be Heroes’, a visual history of ’80s London clubland, may have been published in other ways, the strong community around the subject matter perfectly suits Unbound’s model.

Both speakers stressed the importance of authors having a ‘platform’, which is what Unbound in part provides.

Recreating the book

Although the Touch Press apps come with amazing multimedia and deep interactivity, Max was adamant that the book (and novel) as a form will continue to exist, and was highly skeptical of the hurling bells and whistles at books for little reason in order to enhance them.

John was happy to admit he’s a huge fan of Touch Press’s work, but was equally enthusiastic about the book as both a form and an object. He pointed out that it’s not the book that actually at threat, it’s the publishing business model. And people have heralded the end of the book everytime a new medium has come along (the first instance John has found is the emergence of music hall).


Touch Press has had brilliant promotion, and thus sales, through Apple’s App Store. They refuse to work with Amazon, due to the company’s demand that it can set pricing as low as it wants.

John voiced concerns about Amazon’s dominance in the book market, but accepted that this is the reality that needs to be worked with.

Both speakers stressed the importance of the author’s relationship with the audience (that’s the platform again).

Max and John both agreed that the internet and emerging digital platforms are a more disruptive invention for books than the printing press.

Exciting times.

Image above by Flickr user -boltron


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