#Squeeee! Yes, in what must surely be a first for the Unwin Trust UK-Australia Fellowship, this year’s recipient announced his win using three hashtags.
It was an @joelblacklock tweet that alerted the Twittersphere to Pan Macmillan editor Joel Naoum’s good news: “Just found out I’ve won a fellowship to go to the UK for three months. #squeeee #winning #fb,” he posted.
And here’s to lots more #squeeee-ing in publishing.
After shortlisting three digital publishing research proposals for this year’s Unwin Trust UK-Australia Fellowship, the judges decided to award the research grant to Naoum for his proposal, “Experiments in Digital Publishing”.
The UK-based charitable trust will sponsor Naoum to travel to London for three months to conduct research via placements and interviews, a trip he intends to take in sometime between October this year and April 2012.
But back to the Blacklock tweet, and some explanation. As well as working for a multinational book publisher, Naoum is a blogger and Twitterer.
His Smell of Books blog about ebooks lives at www.booku.com – he uses his mother’s maiden name, Blacklock, to keep an appropriate distance between such social media outings and his day job. He’d like to follow in mum Dianne Blacklock’s footsteps and write fiction under the same name some day too.
Naoum/Blacklock describes himself on his blog as “passionate about the possibilities Web 2.0, social media and ebooks open up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry”.
He is reluctant to commit to naming the specific experiments he’ll be looking into during his fellowship given the rapid pace at which the industry is changing, but says he will “hopefully” be blogging about his findings as he goes.
“The way I envision the report at the end of it is to be a set of detailed analyses of digital publishing experiments, not just straight ebooks,” he says.
“Because I think most of them, particularly in the UK, they’ve moved past the digitization of their front and backlists. That’s probably still happening to a certain extent but it’s not particularly revolutionary and not as interesting.”
The 27-year-old editor says Australian publishers are keeping tabs on things like apps, vooks and other multimedia offerings, but are not sure what steps to take next.
“The advantage of the Unwin Fellowship is that I can compile that information in a way that they can use, that gives them an idea of what’s working and what’s not, and what is not really worth investing in at the moment,” he says.
“Because this kind of technology, and particularly apps, are ridiculously expensive, and they’re all terrified of repeating the CD-ROM disaster of the late 90s, where they invested money in the new technology that ended up just bombing.”
Naoum believes apps are a different to CD-ROMs, but he understands publishers concerns on the parallels, and wariness in general.
“Until they have some hard data, I don’t think they’re going to want to spend that money – most publishers in Australia, anyway.
“Part of it is just waiting for our market to mature a bit … But personnel-wise, there are so few people in Australia with experience with this stuff, it’s really hard to expect us to snap into this new way of thinking, and also to be able to just do it all of a sudden.
“I think there is a certain proportion of, certainly, the blogosphere that wants it to happen right now, that it’s not happening as fast as it should, but I think that’s to do with the realities of new technology.”
The tech junkie has an iPad and a Kindle 3, and sees room in the market for both tablet and e-ink reader technologies.
He thinks many iPad buyers invest because it’s a “new thing” and not because of anything to do with reading, which leads to a battle for eyeballs.
“The thing with apps is, you’re competing with all the other apps in the App Store, and book publishers are not really used to having to compete directly with computer games, movies and music that way,” he says.
“I think discovery is going to be the biggest issue with ebooks in general.
“How people find these things is at the moment quite strictly regulated … publishers have deals with bookstores where they pay for certain books to be at the front of the store.”
Naoum says ebook sales seem to be reflecting paper book sales at the moment, but he doesn’t believe that will continue in the long term.
“So the question of how things get discovered, I suspect it’s going to fall back on social media, blogging and people kind of discovering things for themselves and pushing the best ones forward,” he says.
“That means that that control, which is one of their big draw cards as a producer, is being taken out of the hands of publishers.
“So the publishers are all rushing into that space to try to figure out how they can own social media to promote their books, because if they don’t know how to do it, they’re not going to be able to do their jobs.”
He says he understands why some publishers are hesitant to leap in to publishing apps or enhanced ebooks, but he believes experimentation is the best way to go, and is hopeful that by looking at the more mature (and larger) market in the UK, he’ll be able to get a better snapshot of where publishing is heading – though he acknowledges that “no one really knows, and they’re not going to know in the UK either”.
“If you don’t experiment, then you’re not going to learn anything, and so part of what I’m interested in is why these companies have been experimenting – was it to make money, or was it to learn how to do something new?” he says.
“When that thing starts making money, they know how to do it, which I think is a better reason to experiment, and it’s what book publishers have been doing for a long time.
“We often publish books without knowing whether or not it’s going make money. We just hope it does.
“Experimentation needs to be thought of in the same way.”
Though in many cases it’s not yet, because publishers are “just not used to experimenting in that way”.
As to specifically which projects Naoum’s research will end up focusing on, it’s too early to say.
“That’s not something I know yet, until I start looking into it and until I get over there and start talking to people.”
He has some ideas about what he’ll learn though.
“I think the general vibe is that people who love books don’t necessarily love enhanced ebooks,” he says.
“But I think the whole point of all these experiments and of ebooks in general is that they’re capturing a market that are not necessarily traditional readers, so trying to make assumptions based on what we know about paper book readers is not useful.
“There’s a good chance that there is a market for [enhanced books/book apps], and if there is, then perhaps book publishers should be trying to capture it.”
At Pan Macmillan, Naoum’s official job is as an editor, but as he puts it, “this whole area of digital is done on a can-do basis”.
“Particularly as digital work starts to spill over from the digital kind-of silos in each publishing company, it’s pretty much whoever puts their hand up gets the work.
“Having the interest and chasing it up yourself , I guess that’s what I’ve done, but it’s not an official part of my job.
[Not now, but it sure will be in a very bright publishing future for Naoum, ebookish guesses!]
The Unwin Trust Fellowship’s judges, Patrick Gallagher (Allen & Unwin chairman) and Brett Osmond (Random House’s marketing and publicity director as well as its digital director), said they were also “highly impressed by the short listed entries from Charlotte Harper [yes, that’s me, and I will be living vicariously through Joel during his trip] and Agata Mrva-Montoya, both of which were concerned with digital publishing”, according to the Trust’s media release.
“The interest and growing expertise in the digital field among younger members of the industry bodes well for Australian publishing in our rapidly changing business,” they said.
You can read (and argue with) part of Charlotte Harper’s Unwin Trust Fellowship proposal, Even The Very Hungry Caterpillar can work as an ebook: The digital future for full-colour and illustrated books, here.