What do publishers need in order to innovate?

On October 8th took place the EU stakeholder workshop ‘What do publishers need in order to innovate?’, organised jointly by the TISP project and the NEM initiative (New European Media, the European Technology Platform dedicated to media and creative industries), to present an overview of the European Commission’s funding opportunities for innovation in the creative industries (publishing in particular) and to illustrate some experiences of innovative projects by European publishers, with a view to focus on the conditions that make success possible in this field with regard to access to research and financing.

Holger Volland, Vice-president of the Frankfurt Book Fair, welcomed the participants and introduced the event as a special one for the FBF, as it brought together technology and publishing to discuss what to do to work more closely together, an area of cooperation on which the Fair has been putting a lot of emphasis. Mr Volland said that there were two ways to look at publishing: it could be seen as a dying sector, since the print market seems unlikely to grow, and it’s rather shrinking gradually; but it could and should be seen as an expanding sector, and more than ever so, as digital provides new ways of dealing with content – and e-book markets are indeed on the rise all over Europe.

Nina Klein (Director Corporate Content of the Frankfurt Book Fair) introduced the first group of panelists from the European Commission and briefly outlined the TISP project; she also stressed the relevance of the topic of ICT and publishing and the role of the EU in supporting their integration, which had led the Frankfurt Book Fair to host such a workshop for the first time.

Alessandro Senesi (DG Education and Culture, Deputy Head of Unit in charge of the cultural aspects of the Creative Europe programme, European Commission) provided an overview of Creative Europe, a funding scheme run by his DG to support the cultural and creative sectors (among which he acknowledged the prominence of book publishing), going as far as they can, given that culture is a national competence. Indeed, Mr Senesi explained that despite an increase in the programme’s budget for the period 2014-2020, there are limits to its scope: Creative Europe supports cross-border cooperation, to complement national initiatives, promote exchanges and cooperation activities, and so on, but always focusing on initiatives with an impact across borders. Among the activities supported that are relevant for publishers, he listed the European Union Prize for Literature (co-organised by the Federation of European Publishers, the European Writers’ Council and the European and International Booksellers Federation), which aims at putting European talent in the spotlight (this year’s winners had been announced at the Fair that very morning); a scheme that provides grants for translations of literary works and supports their promotion (the aim is to help translate some 5,000 books in 7 years, through annual calls for proposals); and various cooperation projects in the field of literature.

Javier Hernandez-Ros (DG Communication Networks, Content and Technology, Head of the Creativity Unit, European Commission) explained that his Directorate General (formerly called Information Society) dealt essentially with connecting technologies and content, and while jokingly wondering what it would be called next [it will be DG Digital Economy and Society], he stressed the importance that the topic will have in the new European Commission, due to take office on 1 November. The new Commission will in fact have a Vice-president in charge of the Digital Single Market (the Estonian Andrus Ansip) and a Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society (the German Günther Oettinger), who will follow the Directorate General’s daily work. Moreover, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has announced a copyright proposal within 6 months from the start of his office and specified, in his letters of mandate to Mr Ansip and Mr Oettinger, that their tasks will include the promotion and support of cultural and creative industries – such explicit mention being made for the first time in that setting. Thus, the digital world and the creative sector will be high on the Commission’s agenda, according to Mr Hernandez-Ros.

Mr Hernandez-Ros then briefly presented the Horizon 2020 programme, a large funding programme of the European Commission focused on research and innovation in a broad sense, inviting publishers to find actions potentially beneficial to them in the programme. In particular, several calls for proposals and action lines support the use of ICT in the cultural and creative industries: the ICT 18 call “Support the growth of ICT innovative Creative Industries SMEs” closed in April 2014 with good results in terms of participation (the selected projects will be announced soon), and the current Work Programme includes the ICT 19 call “Technologies for creative industries, social media and convergence”; horizontal actions are also envisaged, such as the SME Instrument (also known as ‘Disruptive Innovation’), which funds feasibility projects and research and innovation activities on a continuous basis (no need to wait for specific calls); and an instrument is in the pipeline that will support access to finance for SMEs in the creative sector, which will be managed by the European Investment Fund. Mr Hernandez-Ros repeated his invitation to all those in the business needing support for innovation to look at all opportunities available and also to make their views known to the Commission, to be visible as a sector and propose their ideas [this is indeed one the aims of collaborative initiatives such as TISP and NEM: to gather a significant number of stakeholders and make proposals to shape the research and innovation agenda of the EU in the creative industries domain].

Harald Trettenbrein (DG Communication Networks, Content and Technology, Deputy Head of the Converging Media and Content Unit, European Commission) explained the complementarity between his unit and that of Mr Hernandez-Ros, saying that his had traditionally focused more on policy (mainly audiovisual and media), dealing with issues like copyright and VAT on digital cultural products (the unit supported the campaign for reduced VAT on e-books), and looking into the impact that Commission’s actions could have on cultural and creative industries. Mr Trettenbrein acknowledged that there were no specific regulations on publishing such as those that apply to the audiovisual sector.

Mr Trettenbrein said that the main trends in the audiovisual sector (interactivity, personalisation, immersion) could apply to publishing as well and that with calls like ICT 19 the Commission was trying to help creative industries to deal with these trends and be competitive. The focus is on collaborative projects (except for the SME Instrument): ICT 19 for example requires at least 3 partners to set up a project. The call has 3 strands: research and innovation actions (RIA), innovation actions (IA) and coordination and support actions (CSA); while RIA have a strong research component aimed at advancing the state of art, IA focus on pilot projects, large scale demonstrations, initiatives close to the market, new services (interactivity and convergence, immersive environments, search), and CSA are meant to create platforms to convey stakeholders’ views. Mr Trettenbrein declared that the Commission had not just discovered cutlrual and creative industries and that the current framework simply reinforced existing policies with a more explicit mandate and made the commitment more concrete.

Mr Senesi added that also Creative Europe, while being a new funding scheme, did continue the work of the previous Culture and Media Programmes, not marking a new approach but an enhancement of the existing framework, and specified that his area of competence would also envisage a financial guarantee scheme for SMEs. He recalled the common objectives of all these initiatives, as identified in the EU treaties, that tell the Commission to support cultural diversity – the Commission tries as well to help creating jobs and growth via the creative industries.

Questioned about support for all stages of content production (as opposed to just the initial phase), Mr Hernandez-Ros acknowledged how calls were drafted openly and presented many opportunities and that there was room for suggestion on how ICT-based projects could help the creative sector to develop; he added that also Structural Funds had to be in part devoted to ‘smart investments’, including the cultural and creative industries.

The following session presented several cases from European innovators, moving from theory to practice and stimulating reflections on what kind of support innovative players would need to succeed.

The first case, introduced by Andrea Angiolini (Editorial Director of publishing house Il Mulino, Italy), was PandoraCampus, a multi-publisher digital platform for higher education, which offers many university course books in their entirety (something quite new), in addition to interactive content and additional features to help university students with their studying and professors with their teaching. The books offered are fully digital; the platform,which puts them into a pedagogical context, is based on standards (thus open to integration of content from various sources – and the content is interoperable and portable). The business model is also innovative: there are different access models, for single chapters, books and course packs. Focus on the reader, active content, plenty of educational resources and additional services are the building blocks of this initiative, which was launched after some intense R&D and a year of experimenting and getting feedback from focus groups. Partially funded by a regional support programme, the project was developed in cooperation with the University of Bologna and carried out technically for the most part by the ICT team of Il Mulino.

Mr Angiolini made some remarks on the landscape of higher education publishing in the digital age and the scope for supporting innovative publishers at EU level. Without some degree of intervention, the scenario might as well end up with no EU players, taken over by big companies rooted in other sectors (ICT, retail) based on a ‘winner takes it all’ mechanism not uncommon in the internet economy; moreover, the offer of services could end up being at the same time too complex (in terms of mechanisms) and too poor (in terms of content). The main needs for support in the sector are: ICT literacy in the educational environment (users need to be able to use technology), simplicity (EU projects are often too complex, they need to be shorter and smaller), envisaging a good mix of publishing and ICT, focusing not only on research but on the industry’s specific features.

Mr Hernandez-Ros said that the Commission was indeed working in order to simplify the process of participation in projects, and acknowledge the point of having to develop new products and services, but not so new as to not have a potential market in the present; he also confirmed that support initiatives were aimed at ICT and publishing, not just at ICT.

Ian Harper (CEO of The Bradfield Company, UK) presented Inanimate Alice, the flagship title of his company. This is an exploration of new ways of reading, an interactive narrative created for the screen that mixes audio, video, animation, game and text to tell the story of a girl who wants to become a computer game designer. The project received some initial funding from the Australian government (it launched there first), but it has been expanding, both geographically (it is available in 7 languages now and recently the Arts Council UK provided some support) and in terms of content (the series has now 6 episodes, and more are planned), as well as usage (Inanimate Alice has been downloaded 3 million times and has engaged 30,000 teachers).

Mr Harper expanded on the potential for Inanimate Alice to help enhancing new and traditional forms of literacy in the classroom, since learning is a lot about narratives, and argued that this model could be used to develop learning curricula around its concept. Mr Hernandez-Ros stressed that ICT could indeed be used to develop new ways of teaching (as suggested in the Commission Communication ‘Opening up Education), as well as a tool for creativity. He said that the Commission was not usually in the business of content creation directly, but praised the example as a case of ICT allowing innovation of important practices.

Dawid Piaskowski (CEO of Booklikes, Poland) presented Booklikes, the “world’s n° 1 blog platform for book lovers”, created to address the need by authors and publishers for places to market their books “outside of the Amazon world”. Faced with the absence of a single place to reach out to book bloggers in particular (whose popularity is skyrocketing), and of a complete solution for book lovers and book bloggers alike, Booklikes was launched in May 2013 in the US and the UK, then in a few more countries (like Germany) and is now present in more than 10 countries (it takes only about 5 days to enter a new national market). It is an easy tool that allows creating one’s own reading website, and can be customised; 45,000 active bloggers are using it now and the number is rapidly growing. The decision to start in the US was due to the presence of a single large market there and to the higher availability of capital for startups.

Mr Hernandez-Ros praised the innovative ways of using technology in publishing, calling for a more optimistic attitude with regard to startups in Europe (he quoted Spotify, Skype and other examples); he recalled that the new Commission would have a Vice-president for the Digital Single Market and aim to create an environment to foster content and technology. Mr Trettenbrein confirmed that the Digital Single Market was a priority, a “power mission”, and said that the EU had a disadvantage in terms of market development, beyond its regulatory fragmentation, namely its cultural and linguistic fragmentation, but he argued that this could and should also become an advantage, as cultural diversity was also something to build upon. Mr Hernandez-Ros quoted Vice-president Kroes’ statement that the Digital Single Market existed already but was illegal, and that it should be made legal.

Helmut Pesch (Director E-Publishing at BasteiLübbe, Germany) illustrated the rapid growth of his publishing house in the e-book market; the company founded its digital division in May 2010 and now has a catalogue of 4,000 e-book titles and 200 apps and has an in-house developers team. Its strategy was based on a focus on entertainment, on targeting digital-born readers (this led to developing a multimedia novel launched in several languages in 2011), trying to remain creative and innovative, cooperating with other sectors across media (TV, film), listening to customers and experimenting constantly. Mr Pesch admitted trying to obtain public funding, but he said it had been an “administrative nightmare”.

The business cases illustrated several topics among those identified by TISP as the most relevant for cooperation between ICT and book publishing, as well as among those indicated by the TISP recommendations as suitable for policy support: the experiences presented highlighted the importance of collaboration with research institutions, the role of external funding (public and private) as an enhancer (provided that access to funds is made simple), the potential of innovative products (interactive, multimedia, etc.) and business models, in particular (but by no means only) in the educational sector and the need to develop digital skills, as well as the role of a level playing field in the online world.

The session consisted in a short presentation of the NEM initiative by Jean-Dominique Meunier (Chairman of NEM), who explained the European Technology Platform’s aim to help to shape the EU’s research and innovation agenda with a focus on creative industries and converging media and its positioning as a cluster of platforms, associations, clusters and projects; this was followed by a short presentation of TISP by Enrico Turrin (Deputy Director of the Federation of European Publisher), who focused on the TISP Smart Book as a resource to highlight interesting business cases of ICT-publishing innovation as well as to find inspiration and potential partnerships, and on the TISP policy recommendations.

The event was closed by the presentation of the results of a joint TISP/NEM survey “R&D needs in European publishing”, which explored what companies from book publishing and the adjacent creative industries need in order to innovate (there were some 120 responses). Frank Salliau (Senior Researcher, iMinds, Belgium) and Christoph Bläsi (Professor at the Institute for Book Studies of Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany) outlined the main findings of the survey, according to which access to finance is the biggest obstacle to innovation for European publishers (especially SMEs); the respondents, the majority of which would be willing to undertake collaborative projects, ranked digital distribution, file formats and multimedia and interactive content as the main areas to focus R&D in order to boost digital publishing. The survey also provided several examples of successes and failures related to innovation in book publishing.

Overall the event was openly recognised by the participants both from the book sector and from the EC as an occasion of open dialogue and fruitful exchange that could help the institutions to keep abreast of the needs and challenges of the creative industries and of the book sector in particular, thus enabling them to build appropriate support and funding to boost innovation and new alliances with the ICT sector. The encouragement made by the officials of the Commission to keep these initiatives alive will certainly provide inspiration for future meetings.

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