Digital change and future-proofing

Hal Robinson explores five ways that digital technology can improve publishing businesses beyond lockdown

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have brought unimagined challenges to independent publishers. But, innovators to the core, we are developing digital habits that can continue to serve us in our ‘new normal’ lives.

Social isolation imposes a new kind of reality, in which digital media dominate our days. We’re also increasingly conscious of our working relationships, which can be taken for granted in the office. We notice their absence and try harder to maintain them when we can. And we appreciate the value of books more and more. Amid all the disruption, the essentials of publishing haven’t changed: helping authors find their audiences; meeting readers’ needs for information, stimulation, rich engagement and having fun; and maintaining the culture and diversity of the world we love. All these are as vital as ever—perhaps even more so.

Although nothing can compensate for the breakdown of sales and distribution systems, nor replace the vitality of face to face creative meetings, there is a lot that independent publishers can do in the current circumstances. And while future proofing can’t be guaranteed, many digital tools are available to help us to prepare for the times ahead. The use of digital tools and techniques can be split into five areas, which are linked and inter- dependent.

The first is using digital media for communicating as much as possible with everyone who is part of our world of books. Keeping up with colleagues online improves focus, and booksellers will be pleased to hear from you. Find all the digital ways you can to communicate with readers: ask what they think and discuss what they would like the future to be.

Developing ways to sell directly helps both find and serve your readers. Direct selling keeps you in touch with your market, your readers and commercial partners when other doors are closed. And when doors open again, you’ve established an additional digital sales channel you can build on.

Using social media helps readers learn more about who you are. Social media are not only for selling but also for asking, encouraging, connecting, talking and enthusing about books. Social media are where your community comes to meet you, especially during lockdown, so encourage responses and create a dialogue.

Finding opportunities for collaboration, about books or other initiatives, has benefits too. The people who work in your world make an ecosystem where business interests coincide and align, so look for common benefits and shared solutions. Curiously, it may even be easier to think about this in the digital environment than face to face. Team up with your authors, illustrators and readers, and make your website a meeting place: a culture hub, where anyone in your world can have fun and play, in a virtual space that just happens to have your wonderful books all around.

The digital world thrives on communities. In publishing, this means readers who share interests with each other and with you. This is particularly valuable in lockdown when real community interaction isn’t possible. The strongest online communities are typically niche interest areas, where fascination is stoked and shared. Find the fans of what you publish, reach the communities where they share their interests, and talk to them directly. Publishers can use the role of community facilitator to build a brand that shows you care about your readers; in return they will care about you. Such communities can also evolve into new marketplaces, which you can make your own.


Hal Robinson is a publishing consultant and former CEO of Librios.