Holger Volland, Vice President of the Frankfurt Book Fair, prepared a keynote for the New European Media (NEM) summit on 29 September 2014, under the motto ‘The evolution of content’. As Holger was not able to attend the summit, and the keynote was held by his colleague Katja Böhne (thanks, Katja!), we caught up with Holger to get his thoughts on the evolution of content.
Nina Klein: In your keynote you speak of ‘atomized content’. That sounds pretty dangerous. What exactly do you mean by that?
Holger Volland: It means that the binding that once held a book together is now gone. Now, the only binding thing that holds content together in the digital world is the taste and the needs of the reader. And reader’s tastes and needs can differ greatly – not only from person to person, but also in time. For example: you might want to have a tiny bit of information on how high your blood pressure is, right now – because you feel uneasy and you are about to drive somewhere. And then, back at home, in your armchair, you might want to read up some more complex information about this, a chapter in an ebook, for example. Or you read it in an app that is connected to a smart device and can show you a comparison of standard data with your personal data. In order to offer all these different ways of content, the publisher needs to atomize all the information that once was collected in one book. Content and container were one, for almost 500 years. Now content takes on a life of its own, it gets more and more personalized, customized, mashable – in short: atomized and ready to be put together in different forms.
Nina Klein: We are currently witnessing a fervent debate about pricing – new business models which advocate flatrates for content mean that traditional pricing mechanisms have to be reconsidered. Some look forward to this, and some fear that the price of content might be in free fall, just like it was the case in the music industry with the arrival of Spotify. What, in your opinion, makes content worthwhile, and what makes readers pay willingly for it?
Holger Volland: This is obviously a very big question to answer, but I will try. ‘Content’ in the book sector has traditionally encompassed all kinds of content – from entertainment to knowledge to bits of relevant information, such as in STM databases for highly specialized target groups. I think that there are three reasons that make content valuable for readers or users in a digital world: first, this is the content itself, in the sense of editorial content, i.e. content that has been tested and proven good, and is thus trustworthy. Second, it is about putting content in a context, which makes content accessible in the first place. A piece of highly valuable content about my blood pressure which is out of my reach as a customer is no use to me – and therefore worthless. Putting content into context is one of the most eminent tasks of publishers nowadays, and it includes distribution and visibility, which also means catering to the needs of very specialized target groups. Thirdly, it is the combination of content plus technology that produces an added value. Social reading is one example, because it answers the readers’s needs to exchange views with fellow readers, and technology makes this possible. When all the three points come together – content, context and technology – they form a convincing offer for readers. You can find lots of examples of companies who have started to offer this already, here on the Smart Book – for example Kudos, a tool that maximizes visibility for reasearchers, or Everlearn, or PandoraCampus etc.
Nina Klein: Let’s take a closer look at what the evolution of content means for book publishers. The TISP project recently published a Europe-wide survey on ‘R&D needs in European publishing‘, the results were released at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 8 October. One of the things that struck me most, was the rapidly increasing willingness of book publishers to cooperate – with other book publishers, but also with research organizations and service providers: 67 per cent of the European publishers questioned answered that they “envisage getting involved in a collaborative approach, e.g. an R&D project in cooperation with other European companies and research institutions”. How do you explain this trend?
Holger Volland: A big part of the charm of the publishing sector is that small and medium sized companies (SMEs) make up for the majority of it. This makes working in this industry so worthwhile and interesting, and it also gives publishing an agility and inventiveness which bigger players often don’t have. Yet what is on the one hand an advantage is a disadvantage when it comes to financing bigger investments that are needed in order to innovate. I like to compare publishing to a swarm of small fish: they give the sea color, structure its ecosystem and make up for majority of life out there – but they need to cooperate and to form into a swarm in order to fight the ‘biggies’ which come into the ecosystem with more financial clout. Cooperation is key as a recipe when it comes to the art of surviving in the publishing sector, and it is also key for success. One step in this vein, for example, is the recent cooperation between TISP and the European technology platform New European Media (NEM). We need more of that. And we need more events, where Techies and Pubs leave their comfort zones and start discussing new and joined business models!