Sabine Haag, Managing Director at the publishing house Wiley VCH and a CONTENTshift juror in 2020 and 2021, as well as Stefanie Penck, Publishing Director at Gruppe teNeues and a member of the 2022 jury, gave insight into their work and the hopes they have for the CONTENTshift accelerator and its latest group of startups.
Although Sabine Haag’s two years on the jury coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and were therefore spent entirely in the digital sphere, she nevertheless took away a great deal from her CONTENTshift experience: “[My colleagues and I] are all so anchored in our own worlds, which means we rarely have time for things that aren’t directly related to the publishing house”, she admits. “So it was great to be able to engage in discussions with other publishers and fellow jurors”. Haag was particularly impressed by the participating startups: “So much energy and passion goes into how they develop ideas. It was a great experience to help them out by paving their way forward, guiding them in the right direction, giving them tips and enabling contacts”. Haag’s work on the jury even provided inspiration for her own everyday work at Wiley: “It’s definitely important for us to stay in touch with market developments and keep an eye on the moves our fellow publishers are making”.
Potential cooperation with startups
Stefanie Penck, who’d previously participated in “protoTYPE”, the predecessor to CONTENTshift, spoke of a similar experience: “For me personally”, she notes “it gave me a broader perspective, a larger view of things. It was an incredibly creative time and I got to know a lot of people”. Although no follow-up project emerged back then, the story might be quite different this year. Indeed, as a member of the Weltbild publishing group, teNeues is keen on finding new eCommerce ideas and solutions. The infrastructure needed to cooperate with startups in the future already exists, and the possibilities as to what this collaboration might look like are very diverse. Whether the focus is on content, sales & distribution or addressing end-customer needs – the field is so wide that Penck hopes to encounter many new and exciting ideas. Of course, teNeues is not “desperately looking for partners in the digital world”, she says with a laugh. “But it’s always good to stay close to the action and keep up-to-date on what kinds of ideas are out there”. As she points out, it’s impossible for every new trend and approach to appear on teNeues’ radar: “We’re hoping there’ll be something we can adapt and make use of ourselves as well”.
The challenge facing today’s book industry is not only to keep up with a rapidly changing world, but also to act in a way that is truly innovative. This pressure to break new ground is certainly felt by teNeues to a larger degree than at conventional trade publishers. The company specialises in high-quality books with many illustrations, and these are heavy physical products with a special touch and feel. Books such as these require a specific digital presentation, which often poses a special challenge. Penck outlines the challenge in the following way: “What we need is an attractive extension and enhancement of content, and this needs to take place in such a way that it doesn’t work against the attractiveness of books, but instead strengthens their standing, because they are indeed where our revenue comes from”. Penck argues that a new model is needed, one that allows the unique nature of books to be conveyed in digital form. “This has to involve more than social media. Those platforms are great and important, but when we convey our content on small mobile-phone screens, it simply doesn’t have the same ‘wow’ effect we can get in stationary bookstores. Conversely, social media can open new doors, and it can also use our books and photographers to reach people who wouldn’t usually go to in-person bookstores”, adds Penck. Yet another key element is the fact that teNeues – just like Wiley – is active on an international level, which means that their content must be transferable to other markets both in terms of language and local conditions. In other words, innovation and inspiring new ideas continue to be absolutely essential.
This is where the CONTENTshift startups can help. The idea behind the accelerator is for the publishing world to support and cooperate not only with the winner of the contest (or winners – last year’s award went to two startups, READ-O and BotTalk), but also to join forces with all of the nominated startups. For example, Wiley is eager to enter into cooperation with Buuk, a software created for SEO and metadata management. “I coached and mentored the startup as part of the accelerator”, explains Haag. And even though a different newcomer ultimately won the CONTENTshift acelerator 2021, Wiley-VCH will be using SEO software initially for one year, starting in March 2022, in its German-language “Dummies” team as a way to optimise customers’ ability to find their products. Haag also sees the potential for a cooperative agreement between Wiley and Day Off, a startup that helps train soft skills using daily challenges.
Greater courage in the industry
In general, both Haag and Penck are hoping to see the industry show greater courage when it comes to digital innovation. “It’s important that we find a balance between the electronic industry, between content and tools, and traditional books, which, of course, include both e-books and the printed product”, explains Haag. “The fact that nothing much is happening at the moment also has to do with the general mindset,” argues Penck. “A lot of people still live in a kind of ivory tower, that’s just the way it is. People who work with books see them as elitist commodities”. The book industry, she says, is a very complex business with an interwoven network and sometimes very entrenched systems.
All the more reason to make a change. In particular, the more traditional world of books needs to be linked together with its more modern online counterpart. “You can’t have one without the other”, says Haag emphatically. And Penck agrees. The problem, she argues, is that “we’re still driving with the handbrake on. There’s no hostility to technology, but there’s a definite sense of uncertainty that has yet to be addressed and resolved. This is why it’s great to have a format like the CONTENTshift accelerator, because it can help drive the process forward”. Indeed, the two experts agree that it’s important to stay open and curious when it comes to digital transformation. It’s also wise to look at what other companies and startups are working on in terms of new ideas, to learn from one another and cooperate with each other, so that everyone benefits in the end.
Text: Isabella A. Caldart