Bookselling between discoverability and customization

Highlights from iMinds conference

iMinds and jointly organized a TISP session titled ‘Digital book publishing: technological, economical, and practical perspectives‘ to share their experience of cooperation on innovation in publishing and ICT during the last iMinds conference.

Wesley De Neve, senior researcher with the Multimedia Lab of Ghent University – iMinds, started the seminar with a presentation on iMinds, a research institute founded by the Flemish government in 2004, with the aim of creating lasting economic and social value through ICT innovation. In addition, iMinds is a virtual research institute, consisting of five departments that are active in six markets: ICT, media, health, energy, smart cities, and manufacturing.

To facilitate ICT innovation, iMinds makes use of several toolboxes, dependent on the targeted time-to-market: strategic research, applied research, pre-competitive testing, and incubation and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, Wesley gave an overview of the multidisciplinary Publisher of the Future research project, a joint collaboration between iMinds and ( is an umbrella organization that represents the different stakeholders in the Flemish book sector). This research project, which runs from 2012 till 2016, aims at accelerating technology and business modeling innovation in the Flemish book sector through the deployment of yearly pilot projects, for instance targeting cost-effective book enrichment and value chain modeling.

Davy Hanegreefs, innovation manager at, gave a talk on “Putting the Shop back into Shopping: Selling Books in a Digital Age”, discussing the evolving role of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the way they embrace digital reality. Indeed, given the rise of a new technology-savvy generation of customers that look at things differently, new bookstores are building their business around unique experiences and services, adding coffee shops, different product types, spaces for co-working, bookstore parties with DJs, and so on. In this context, Davy identified five trends that bookstores could leverage in order to further strengthen their business model, stressing that the solution is not in simply reproducing the Amazon model:

  • interoperability;
  • discoverability;
  • personalization;
  • co-creation and collaboration;
  • social connection.

Davy also stated that the next decade will be less about the next big technological discovery, where people will stand in amazement about what technology can do, but more about the seamless integration of technology into our daily lives.

Olivier Braet, senior researcher at SMIT (Center for Studies on Media, Information and Telecommunication) of the Free University of Brussels – iMinds, gave a talk on ‘Industrial Aspects of Digital Book Distribution’. Olivier first discussed a few characteristics of the international e-book market (the European market is lagging behind the American market, with the exception of the UK), the adoption of tablets and e-readers (Apple is currently the market leader, with Samsung quickly catching up), the complementary nature of print and digital, and the adoption of e-books by consumers (highly varying among different countries). Olivier then discussed a few best practices, including the sensitivity of customers to DRM, practices used in the sector of educational gaming, and the analogy with the audiovisual sector, also paying attention to the feasibility of Spotify-based business models for the publishing sector. This discussion was followed by a few strategic recommendations, including the observation that a “one size fits all” approach is not feasible in practice and that digital non-fiction must distinguish itself from the abundance of online information. Olivier subsequently moved on to formulating a number of conclusions, amongst others that media consumers can accept a controlled distribution platform, with supply of media products that do not follow a cost control strategy but a premium quality strategy (as far as technical design is concerned), and that current VAT policies are pushing publishers away from building out their own platforms for digital book distribution.

Tom De Nies, doctoral researcher at the Multimedia Lab of Ghent University – iMinds, gave a talk on ‘The Publisher of the Future: Next Steps for Digital Book Authoring and Publishing’. Tom first identified four core issues in today’s publishing workflow:

  • a “print first” mindset;
  • the danger of vendor lock-in;
  • cumbersome corrections and updates;
  • metadata is an afterthought.

Tom subsequently discussed three ideas that may help overcoming the aforementioned issues:

  • a new workflow that separates content, structure, and layout;
  • a generic approach towards adding multimedia and interactivity features;
  • machine-understandability and semantics.

Tom finished his talk by giving a demonstration of a cloud-based proof-of-concept for collaborative authoring and enrichment of digital books. This environment, which supports the Open Web Platform (HTML5 and CSS3) and EPUB 3, implements the first two ideas, and where implementation work for the third idea is going on.

The TISP seminar at iMinds conference first of all raised interest for the model of cooperation presented between a research center and publishers. The initiative “Publisher of the future” designed by iMinds and, the umbrella organization of publishers and booksellers is a multidisciplinary and pan-sectorial project that aims at gathering together publishing stakeholders and researchers to find new solutions to face the challenges of the digital shift starting from concrete requirements and demand of the sector. The seminar highlighted some trends in the evolution of the book experience that should be considered when talking about innovation:

  • Digital technology can help in physical selling. The future of retail is not only e-commerce but an evolution of the physical bookstore is possible where there could be an integration between clicks and bricks towards a satisfying customer experience. Ebooks are carrier of a number of information and data that can be beneficial also in selling paper books;
  • Interoperability. The possibility to read e-books purchased on any device independently from the system or the format is a request of the customers that should be addressed also with a new approach to a DRM that facilitates and does not restrict use
  • Discoverability Digital tools and services to increase discoverability of books can offer several opportunities also for physical bookstores, mapping out the customer journey of the store;
  • Customization and personalization of the experience. Creating unique experiences and products, being able to offer the customer a book in any format printed or digital, guiding customers through books recommended for them based upon their interests and customer history is possible thanks to a smart use of the customers’ data available;
  • Social connection. The social aspect of reading is increasingly important; sharing experiences and talking about books in your social network means also being guided by sources you trust in the choice of reading. On business strategy, the economic and statistical analysis presented, offered several conclusion. The media consumer can accept a controlled distribution platform, with supply of media products that do not follow a cost control strategy but a premium quality strategy as far as technical design is concerned. Current VAT-policy pushes publishers away from building out their own platforms for digital distribution.

For access the Storify of the event, click here

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