Digital R&D in the Arts Scotland - Case Study 10 - Publishing Scotland
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
If you would like to sign-up to attend the Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event on the 21st in Edinburgh please click here
What does it take to create an app which makes it to the top of the charts? Ask Publishing Scotland – their Bookspotting app made it to the Guardian Top Twenty iPhone and iPad apps in the week it was released and features in The List’s top five book apps.
Not sure what to read next? Let Bookspotting guide you… Where are you? What day is it? How are you feeling? From jock to hen, canny to glaikit, foutering to adventurous – let Bookspotting guide you to a great Scottish read.
Lots of lessons were learned during this Digital R&D Fund project – follow this link to the case study to learn more about the process and download the app to try the product.
Publishing Scotland BookSpotting App
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“It's important that we’re not just seen as a print industry, but that we’re seen as really embracing digital opportunities” Marion Sinclair
Publishing Scotland has developed an app with its creative partner, Saraband Books, and its technology partner, Spot Specific. The Bookspotting app uses GPS technology to provide information about Scottish books and authors linked to places that are close to the user’s location. Following on from the R&D project, Publishing Scotland is planning further digital work including an overhaul of its website, and digital skills workshops with its member publishers.
Embracing new developments in technology is vital for the publishing industry, says Marion Sinclair, chief executive of Publishing Scotland, whose Digital R&D project is part of a broader move towards using more digital ways of reaching readers. “It’s no secret that the publishing industry is an industry in transition,” Sinclair says. “Most of our publishers have engaged with digital in some way – when we surveyed them, 80% said they had produced ebooks. Our role is supporting publishers in whatever endeavour they choose to go into, and one of the main strands is digital work.”
Publishing Scotland supports its member publishers in their digital work by providing workshops and a training programme with a strong digital element. It was a logical step for the organisation to create its own platform that reflected the shift towards digital technologies, while also providing a tool to promote Scottish books.
“At our latest conference, digital marketing was one of our major strands,” says Sinclair. “Although most of our publishers are now engaged in digital publishing, getting your books discovered by readers is one of the major issues, and Bookspotting fits very neatly into that. We thought there was a good fit in what we were supporting our publishers and funding them to do, and it gave us an opportunity to do something ourselves as an arts organisation.”
The organisation had previously worked with VisitScotland, advising the national tourist body on what literature to use to promote Scotland’s main tourist locations. This sparked the idea that Publishing Scotland worked on with Sara Hunt on how those ideas might be developed further into a geo-location app.
“It got us thinking what books would work in terms of settings, themes and characters, and the idea of literary tours. We thought of putting those things together with the digital technology side of it and the location, and we came up with Bookspotting.
“The app locates books and themes and characters for settings around Scotland. So when you’re out and about, through GPS technology it will tell you what books are set near you, what authors were born near you, or if there’s a literary connection. There are a number of tours and themes, and it offers a slightly more whimsical path or signposting into the world of Scottish books.”
Developing digital projects that complement the print side of the industry is a vital part of the organisation’s output, says Sinclair, and she emphasises the need to evolve. “You have to do things like this. As an organisation it’s important for us to move into the digital arena, otherwise your clothes can get stolen by digital media companies that don’t have the content or publishing background,” says Sinclair.
“It’s really important for publishers to factor those skills into their own companies and embrace digital technology – not to outsource too much of it, but to agree to learn themselves. It’s really important that we’re not just seen as a print industry, but that we’re seen as really embracing digital opportunities, and there are real opportunities in the digital sphere.
“For example, although the app is very much focused on Scotland, you can download it anywhere in the world. So if you were hoping to make a journey to Scotland, it gives you a set of books to read before you go or after you’ve been. That kind of marketing and reach would've been really difficult to achieve in the past.”
Sara Hunt had already developed a number of apps, and had worked previously with Alistair McCallum, of the Glasgow-based technology partner Spot Specific, which made the company the obvious choice as the partner for Bookspotting.
Having a tech partner who was not only interested in the content and subject, but could also provide an external perspective for the whole project, helped to provide a valuable balance of input and was key to the project’s success, Sinclair says.
“We’re very text-focused in publishing. We work very much with a cover image and blurb and text — it’s very wordy. You’re trying to shrink it down to an app size, really only looking at having small bits of information, and Alistair was really good at getting us to concentrate on the essential.
“Sara and I are both very focused on the book world but are both very fond of our iPhones and apps — we’ve downloaded a lot of them and have been going to a lot of digital conferences over the years.
“Alistair is very well versed in Scottish culture and is really interested in the content, and that really helped. He gave us a view on how to simplify what we had. He’s enthusiastic, and his background gave a really good view as a user. We are so close to the world of books that it’s sometimes hard to see what it’s like from that fresh reader perspective.”
The partners wanted the app to reflect a young, fresh approach to books and reading that might provide an alternative way into literature. This informed the decision to refer to books rather than literature in the app’s title, and decisions about its packaging.
“I hope that we’re helped by the image and the look and feel of the app, which pays homage to Trainspotting. It’s quite an arresting image, and quite appealing. We’re trying not to make it look too ‘literature’, with dusty tomes, historical references and so on — we’re not saying, ‘You have to read these because these are the classics.’
“That wasn’t the image we wanted — we wanted to make it look fresh, relevant and contemporary. The publishing industry and books have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, so it’s not new. But what’s happening at the moment that is really new is bringing it to a new digital platform and a new audience, and we had to reflect that in the look and feel of the app.”
Sinclair and her team took information from the 15,000 entries on their existing Scottish books resources website, Books From Scotland, which they set up in 2005. This was then added to using information from their member publishers, to create a bank of data. Sinclair then took on an assistant editor, who worked on the project to collate the information, from which Spot Specific created a customised database.
The relationship with the tech partner worked well, Sinclair says, but the collating of the information was one of the biggest challenges. “What made it quite onerous was that we’d a big set of data and a huge amount of records. We had to come up with some parameters as to what books to choose and what kinds of information would work in the app environment. We were then slimming that down and augmenting the data with our own information from publishers and other literary organisations.”
The organisation’s lack of experience meant that they were perhaps unrealistic about the work involved. “One thing we didn’t appreciate — not being technical — is that there’s a big difference between the app and the website. If there’s something wrong you can generally go into a website and change it instantly. An app requires an update, which isn’t just a question of going in and fixing something. There’s a cost involved, there’s tech time – you have to be aware that it’s a different beast.”
This meant that the original six-month timescale was unrealistic, and this is something the organisation would urge other organisations to consider. “Six months goes by in a flash. The rest of the project went really well, and our aim at the beginning to make it fresh, relevant and accessible remained consistent and we managed to do that. Whatever project it is, it’s always going to take almost twice the amount of time that you think, so the time aspect is crucial.”
As the project developed, it also became a challenge to avoid becoming overly ambitious. “If we had advice to give to others it would be to say — it’s going to be enough to get a really accessible GPS app up in six months. We were slightly distracted by all the shiny features, and that sent us scurrying off to things that we just didn’t have time to do.”
Working on the app has informed Publishing Scotland’s future approach to work, and there are digital projects that Sinclair is keen to get under way. “The app has set us on a path. The Books from Scotland website is very much in need of a refresh. One of the outputs from the app will be to inform what we do with the website next.
“In terms of being a digital organisation, we’re there to support the digital efforts of our publishers, and we want to do that and learn a bit ourselves. We’re just about to embark on a digital skills project with publishers, which will be about workshops and mentoring, and we’ll have some stuff about apps in there as well.”
Feedback from the app has been generally positive, although there were some initial problems with Android devices. The app was named in The Guardian as one of the 20 best iPhone and iPad apps during the week it was launched, and as one of the five top book apps in The List magazine.
Book apps offer a great opportunity to the Scottish publishing industry, and many more could be developed, Sinclair says. “It’s a real opportunity — tourists come to Scotland for its heritage, not only its built heritage but its felt heritage, and its landscape, characters and history, and something that brings that alive in the digital sphere, tied in with books, would be good.”
Owner, Saraband Books
“We’re very open to experimenting with digital at Saraband. We’ve been aware of the progress towards digital book discovery and all forms of digital content for a long time and have tried to keep at the front of it.
“The whole idea with Bookspotting is for people to discover books if they’re not browsing in a bookshop. Online, people don’t really see books other than those listed at the top of the charts on the internet
“It was a really big leap from our past projects but we learnt a lot from it. I’m really pleased with what happened — the people who have downloaded it are all reporting how much they're enjoying it and having fun with it and learning about both older and recent titles. Beyond settings and authors, we've included many book-related sites in the geolocation, including major libraries and all bookshops or sites with a significant retail space for books.
“If you’re a publisher, you have to be aware that many people are finding their reading through digital channels and you have to be able to get your book more visible in that setting. It doesn’t matter whether someone wants to read a physical book or an ebook — they've got to know that book exists, and Bookspotting is about discoverability.
“It used to be much easier — now it’s much harder to get people’s attention. We’re about to revamp our website and social media because you’ve got to keep doing it, keep changing it because people’s attention span is really short. Back in the day the way to get noticed was to spend £20,000 to get your book on the front table in Waterstones. Now its more democratic and more creative, but you have to put in a lot of work.
“It used to be much easier — now it’s much harder to get people’s attention. We’re about to revamp our website and social media again because you’ve got to keep doing it, keep changing it because people’s attention span is really short. Back in the day the way publishers focused their marketing efforts was to compete to get their books on the front tables in Waterstones and other chain bookshops. Now it's more democratic and more creative, it's focused on the consumer as well as the trade, but you have to put in a lot of work to keep coming up with fresh and engaging campaigns.”
“I would totally encourage people to get involved in digital solutions to things — it’s essential. You can’t be a Luddite — the world’s going to change whether you go with it or not. It’s essential to go for it but you still need to know your business. What should control it is your imagination.”
Freelance journalist / book reviewer for The List magazine
“The app is good — its main strength is the location functionality, which is a big part of mobile these days, and they’ve identified that that’s a unique aspect that an app can have that a website or a book can’t.
“The walks are good and the fact it’s all integrated with location is to me the thing that makes it valuable and different. The content on its own is useful, having so many books and authors in one database, but it still wouldn’t make me go “wow” without that location aspect.
“I like that there are literary walks that you can do, and also the independent bookshops angle, where it will show you your nearest independent bookshop — I think that’s really great.
“There’s not just one place that people go for their book recommendations, and apps are another place to go to find books.”