Following a morning session filled with commentary on adapting to new technology platforms, Tuesday's second annual PubTechConnect conference, held jointly by Publishers Weekly and New York University’s SPS Center for Publishing, continued with more panels and breakout sessions in that vein while adding a focus on diversity into the mix.
The afternoon kicked off with a series of breakout panels focusing on bringing books from the page to the screen, bringing fiction to mobile devices, and podcasting. At "From Book to Screen," Maximum Films and Management president and founder Marcy Drogin and Wheelhouse Films CEO and president Erik Palma noted that the #MeToo movement has caught Hollywood up to books a bit in terms of women-focused stories, women protagonists, and women directors. In YA content, the film industry is also finally veering back to more realistic fiction, like the works of John Green, rather than sci-fi or dystopian work in terms of rights acquisitions. Ultimately, though, the big indicators for whether a book will sell for the screen are still big deals, good reviews, and, above all, book sales. (As an example, the two pointed out that no one wanted to adapt The Hunger Games until book sales boomed; studios were wary of making a movie about kids killing each other until they realized it would sell)
In the "Mobile Fiction, New Ways" panel, Molly Barton, CEO and cofounder of Serial box, discussed her formula for making bite-sized fiction, and Hooked founder and CEO Prerna Gupta explained how her company does something similar, with stories that are told via a text message–style storytelling app. Gupta and her husband, both tech industry veterans, were co-writing a sci-fi novel with a brown woman protagonist when they decided to test interest based on race and gender. They found, by monitoring digital reading habits in a test group of readers, that most readers didn't really care what the gender or ethnicity of the protagonist of a book was—although women vastly prefer books about women, while men have no real preference in protagonist gender—but they still struggled, at first, to figure out how to keep readers' attention in their stories. Seeking a solution, they turned to data. After tracking habits on a new story, they found ways to keep readers' attention on stories by analyzing where readers dropped off while reading; that is, at what part of the story they exited the app. Once problem areas were found, Gupta said, a human editor was needed to find areas that bored readers and tweak the pacing and language appropriately.
At a "Diversity and Inclusion" workshop Lee & Low publisher Jason Low said that 69% of his staff identify as people of color, with roughly similar numbers for authors and illustrators. "The whole definition of diversity has expanded," he said. "It's not this carved-in-stone kind of thing. It can grow." He added: "It's not necessarily about following trends—it's about listening to the kinds of stories that are coming from the people we're publishing." For her part, Full Circle Literary agent Adriana Domínguez noted that the "Own Voices" movement has "has always been Full Circle's calling card," adding that social media is a great resource for learning about diversity.
Following the breakouts, attendees gathered back at the main stage for a panel on "Where Publishing Is Going Next," which followed diversity threads of its own. Quartz's Thu-Huong Ha moderated a women-only panel spanning the publishing and media industries, with Jessica Grose of Lenny, Jamia Wilson of the Feminist Press, Sara Goodman of Wednesday Books, and Sara Fischer of Axios joining forces to discuss how to make brand and content stand out, ways to make employees more productive, problems publishers are running into, and more.
Fischer, a media reporter, pointed to technology platforms as a major issue in terms of media companies' distribution models. "A lot of publishers are 'signing a deal with the devil' and catering their content to the distribution platforms so they could reach a scale to sell against," she said. Then, in 2016, the measurements shifted from web traffc to active engagement with content. "We never had a mechanism for engagement," she said. "It doesn't matter if you reached ten million people if they only stayed on your site for a second." But when platforms' desires shifted, publications found themselves at the mercy of their whims, suddenly finding themselves losing control of a huge core of their distribution model. Her suggestion for combatting this? Don't rely on platforms, and, instead, create a direct-to-audience distribution model.
For Grose, whose primary product is a newsletter—and therefore directly distributed—web traffic is less of a worry; their model is advertising-based, and they focus more on selling "a boutique experience and the engagement of our readers" to their advertisers. Grose also tends to let her staff work from home. She finds that giving employees space to work on their own schedules, and removing commuting from the equation, has actually increased productivity. "The micromanagement of people's days is so antiquated." Productivity isn't better when you're wasting time commuting, etc. "I don't think you can do away with face time altogether...but I think the way we all live our lives now, to have a very rigid schedule, having to be in certain places at certain times, is such a drawback," she said.
Wilson and Goodman, being from the book publishing industry, had some different takes. It's still vital—if not more so—to have direct interaction with readers in book publishing, like at book festivals and on social media platforms; the trick, Goodman said, is to learn that "every season has a different challenge in terms of reaching our audience." She has found that her audience "wants to have a conversation with us, a little bit," and so, in Wednesday's interactions online, "having a very human-feeling voice coming through wherever we are is very important to us."
Wilson also stressed engagement—at everything from book fairs to women's rights rallies—while also speaking to the Feminist Press's particular mission in an era when different strains of feminism often vary wildly in terms of what they're looking for from books. "Some of the books that you see on our list are in disagreement with each other on how feminism should be published," she said. "We think that's how it should be."
On diversity, Wilson, who is African-American, added: "I would love to see more workplaces work like our office in publishing," i.e., more diversely; "I'm someone who does not have the traditional publishing pedigree, but somehow found myself in this place, and want to be able to create a pathway for other voices."
The afternoon's closing keynote came from Group Nine Media CEO Ben Lerer, the founder of Thrillist, who was interviewed by an old friend, Wired senior editor Jessi Hempel. Lerer brought the audience up to speed on his publication's founding and the history of its consolidation into Group Nine Media, a holding company he and his family put together to house a media group which, today, includes not just Thrillist but NowThis and the Dodo as well. (The Lerer family continues to invest in a number of other media companies, among them BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and Refinery 29.
Lerer saw Thrillist as an opportunity to cater to the interests of a young male demographic. Now, he sees it as one of many parts of a whole. He was building Thrillist along the line of the Travel Channel, he said, comparing the brands he and his family were developing, now all under the Group Nine umbrella, to other media outlets. "NowThis was building CNN. The Dodo was building Animal Planet." Lerer, a "big believer" in consolidation, wanted to make sure he could have those brands working in tandem while still maintaining their own voices. "There's a lot of power in scale, and a lot of value creation in consolidation," he said. "You can build infrastructure," as long as you also "centralize business functions," in order to ensure that "the brands can focus on being the brands."
In terms of issues in the industry, Lerer said, "The biggest problem that digital media has right now is a delta between expectation and reality. It's not that there's no real digital media businesses to be built, it's that there's an expectation that these are Silicon Valley tech companies and they'll grow like that." So, he added, if a single company stumbles—especially if there's a huge expectation for its success—investors and reporters pounce as soon as a chink shows in the armor. For Lerer, though, it's all about patience. "I'd rather just put our head down and operate," he said. "If you can have the access to capital and wherewithal to play a longer game, you can start to build intergenerationally important brands."
As for the big platforms and the way they disrupt business, Lerer insists it's possible to work with them. "Having lock-in in social is something I don't think most people think exists," he said, but stressed that algorithmic shifts on the platforms have not affected his business at all, adding that this February was Group Nine's highest month in terms of audience Facebook interaction ever.
Plus, he added, you can't build a business to "hack an algorithm." Brand, quality content, and consumer trust all matter. Or, as Lerer put it, "Good stuff is good stuff."