The digital environment opens up new ways for people to enjoy the information that interests them. Publishing still dominates one long-established format: print on paper.
But it’s not the oldest; storytelling, performance and music all predate it. These still thrive today and hold their own alongside newer forms like radio, film, television and online media. In all of these, sharing information is the common ground.
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The challenge of our present time is to learn how best to adapt our publishing practices when the channels and media are different from those of print.
There are three ways to look at multi-channel digital media:
First, you can use the same content in different media—for example, accompanying a print book with an ebook or audiobook edition of the same title. Since the material remains essentially the same, the cost and the return on investment are familiar calculations: while the cost of an ebook can be small, creating an audiobook can be expensive, although the markets and sales channels for audiobooks are well known.
An example familiar to publishers is the way Penguin UK produces products in different media for classics such as Wuthering Heights. Although in this case the hardcover came first, then the paperback, then the audiobook, then the ebook, it’s just as easy to think of the sequence flowing in the other direction entirely.
Second, there is the potential to reuse parts, or modules, of the original content or the wider source material in different ways, locations and contexts. For example, a piece on the Algonquin Hotel in a travel guide to New York may also be suitable for a book or article on American literary history. This has always applied to photographs, and it’s easy to imagine ways video or audio can be combined in different products, too.
What’s more, the cost of multi-channel reuse is negligible once the content has been created, as long as it is available in modular form. Here, too, the sequence is optional: think of a Nigella Lawson recipe, appearing on her TV show; on the program’s website; in her associated book; in an ebook, too; on her own website; and printed in magazines promoting both the TV show and the book in both print and digital formats. Her website summarizes and organizes all the activities surrounding this content and serves as the focus of her community of enthusiastic followers.
The third approach to multi-channel media is more structured and results from editorial planning supported by a technical environment that’s purpose-built to achieve the goals behind taking that approach in the first place. The classic journalistic skill of reusing the same research for different articles can apply to planning books, too, when the initial creative work is adapted to make new products. Adaptation is nearly always less expensive than creating content afresh.
This sort of editorial planning goes beyond journalism, however, as the extraordinary (and interconnected) success of a recent exhibition at the British Museum, curated by museum director Neil MacGregor, shows brilliantly. The British Museum page points to the exhibition, originally physical but now virtual; the best-selling book; the podcasts; the British radio programs that helped launch the exhibition; and links from the website to the British Museum’s galleries and also to other museums. This approach has since been used for other thematic exhibitions.
It is a model for the kind of multi-channel approaches that will add to the appeal of museums of every kind in the future. Opportunities for analogous treatment of almost any topic exist for publishers, too, as they increasingly consider themselves to be ‘curators’ of content, and not just part of a production line to a bookshop.
In all of these, choosing which media and channels to deploy, and how many to use, is dependent on the nature and resources of each project. With access to the digital environment, however, the opportunities are limited only by the ability to imagine what can be done.
In my next post I’ll consider how authors can apply their own skillsets toward multi-channel publishing in ways that benefit their brands and bottom lines without compromising their content.