Publishing’s Next Iterations: PubTech Connect 2018

NYU’s Center for Publishing once again joined forces with Publishers Weekly on March 6 to present PubTech Connect, a day of conversation about innovation in media. While last year’s inaugural program had speakers who were less familiar with publishing, and less familiar to publishers, this year’s stayed a little closer to the base while still presenting a slew of new players and ideas.

The morning began, as it had last year, with a dialog, this one between Pamela Paul of the New York Times Book Review and Sam Dolnick, the assistant editor overseeing digital strategy at the New York Times. They talked about developments in their company, notably audio (the NYTBR now includes audiobook bestseller lists in its lineup), video (a work in progress at the NYT), and the way social media has changed how readers interact with the journalists and editors.

Then came “The Innovators,” where audio – this time in the medium of podcasting – was a big topic of conversation. Following was Google’s Andrew Brown, who also had much to say about ways in which voice commands and audio would change how we use the 400 million Android devices in circulation.  Google has recently become more active as an ebook and audiobook vendor. A new program on Google Assistant, “Tell me a story,” has proved a huge hit with families, he said, advising publishers to “take note.”

A panel on new ways of marketing focused on reaching the right customer. Meredith Ferguson from TMI Strategy called “Influencer Marketing” the “scalable form of word of mouth.” Jane K. Lee, of HarperCollinsEpic Reads, spoke of how critical it is that the influencer engages in authentic ways with users, even if there are fewer of them: quality of engagement matters over quantity of followers.

The morning ended with Penguin Random House’s Kristin Fassler giving a remarkable presentation on how her group had used VR and audio in the marketing campaign for Lincoln in the Bardo and created robust search terms to promote a new Dean Koontz series.

In the first afternoon sessions, there were a variety of breakout panels. A favorite was one on serial fiction featuring Serial Box’s Molly Barton and Hooked’s Prerna Gupta, each with different content tailored to different markets. Barton’s readers are looking for quality fiction in short bites, while Gupta’s want text messages that form a dialog between characters. Hooked, which has been around since 2015, claims 40 million readers in 25 countries.

After the breakout sessions, a panel on “New Voices, New Viewpoints” brought together five women, including Sara Fischer from Axios, Feminist Press’s Jamia Wilson, Wednesday BooksSara Goodman, and Lenny’s Jessica Grose, along with moderator Thu-Huong Ha from Quartz. Again, the discussion centered on the importance of strong direct-to-consumer relationships and how that might involve anything from email to podcasting to events, and, of course, “responsible” social media. Throughout the day there was discussion of both the ways in which to use social media to enhance brands, and the pitfalls of relying on any one platform too heavily – especially given recent changes in Facebook and Twitter’s algorithms.

The packed day ended with a lively discussion between Group Nine Media’s Ben Lerer, who created Thrillist and grew the business into a large media holding company, and Wired’s Jesse Hempel. They reiterated much of the advice from the day: Brand matters. Trust matters. Quality matters. It was a rousing end to a day filled with thought-provoking discussions.

As Camille McDuffie, Publisher of Columbia Global Reports and a first-time attendee, noted, “With all of the digital strategies available to publishers now, one of the big takeaways was to understand your purpose and mission and do the things that amplify that. Not every digital strategy is going to work, but it’s okay to try them and figure out the ones that are best for reaching your readers.”