Book publishers try writing a new chapter with the help of tech

Augmented realty. Heat maps. Artificial intelligence.

They’re not terms usually associated with the staid world of books. But publishers are trying new technologies to survive a fast-changing publishing world—and to reach a new generation of readers.

With the help of augmented reality, shoppers can use their smartphones to scan book covers so they can see the dragons printed on them come alive, like in a TV cartoon. Visual heat maps are letting book marketers see what readers focus on when looking at book covers and marketing materials so designers can create more impactful images. And artificial intelligence is being used to let publishers predict book sales and, perhaps in the future, supply voices for audiobooks instead of using humans. 

“We live in an age of distraction, and do we have to work a little harder to keep people hooked? Yes,” says Kilby Blades, a bestselling romance author who has researched budding tech platforms for authors.

The growing experimentation with tech comes during a major shift in the publishing industry. Instead of churning out only paperback and hardcover books, publisher strategy is shifting amid the rise of ebooks, audiobooks, and books that are printed on demand.

Until COVID hit, the industry’s growth had been lackluster, with physical book sales rising just 1% to 3% annually for years. But amid the stay-at-home orders of the pandemic, publishers got a lifeline. During the first three months of this year, for example, sales rose 29% compared with the same period a year earlier, according to tracking firm NPD. It was the highest volume of book sales since 2004.

One area of growth not reflected in the numbers above are from apps featuring bite-size digital stories that can be read in shorter amounts of time. The stories are designed to appeal to younger readers who grew up on smartphones using Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

In April, Amazon announced one such app, Kindle Vella, for novellas of about 40,000 words each that readers can access by spending “tokens” to unlock content. Meanwhile, startups such as Tap by Wattpad, Radish, Hooked, Kiss, and Chapters deliver readers interactive and gamified stories—think choose-your-own adventure—and serial fiction, delivered in small chunks over time. Much of the content is from well-known authors who want to earn more money from their older titles.

In a sign of how popular bite-size stories have become, as many as 90 million people spend 23 billion minutes monthly on Wattpad. The service features nearly 1 billion uploads of content, most of which is free.

“For a lot of publishers and authors, these apps are just reaching an additional audience and new income streams,” says Blades.

That extra money comes from apps such as Kiss and Chapters, which are buying rights to books to publish them on the apps. Other startups like Wattpad may pay some authors to write paid stories on their app or sign deals with authors for TV and film projects based on their work.  

That’s not to say big publishing houses aren’t trying to innovate on their own. Penguin Random House is experimenting with artificial intelligence to predict demand for books in key geographies and to reduce book return rates.

Publishers are also experimenting with A.I. in partnership with Google to create A.I.-generated voices for audiobooks, for faster and cost-effective audiobooks without a human narrator. Some startups, including, already offer A.I.-generated voices for audiobooks.

Of all its book publishing brethren, French publisher Hachette Livre has perhaps gone the furthest. It embedded one of its top executives, Maja Thomas, into the heart of Silicon Valley to strike deals with startups and tech giants. Thomas, Hachette’s chief innovation officer, has a team adapting titles for Alexa smart speakers and other audio services that let children choose their own adventures by speaking a wish out loud.

Her team is also using machine learning to track and identify future design trends. Meanwhile, a “tagging factory” in France crunches data about the contents of Hachette books to improve the metadata around titles to make them appear more often in online search results to increase sales.

“We have to future-proof ourselves against new generations of readers that may have different expectations,” says Thomas.   

Recently she spent time in a Silicon Valley garage, where automakers are experimenting with technology for self-driving cars. The thinking is that drivers of autonomous vehicles may no longer need to pay as much attention to the road, and that cars will therefore become entertainment theaters—and storytelling may play a key role.

Another idea that Hachette is exploring is how to use A.I. to personalize books. One thought is to take data from smartphones—photo tags, local weather, and location data, for example—and adjust plots based on that information.

While these kinds of projects haven’t been translated into sales yet, publishers insist that they help them determine how good new technology is and when to deploy it. Of course, a key consideration is whether the technology is even cost effective.

“The publishing industry doesn’t move quickly. Some are dipping their toes in, but they haven’t gotten very far,” says University of Michigan professor Erik Gordon, who has followed the publishing industry as part of his mobile marketing and M&A studies.

Hachette says it had a successful test in February with Google Lens, an Android phone feature that lets people use their camera to scan people, places, and things to get more detailed information. Barnes & Noble shoppers with Android phones could see the covers of a number of the publisher’s science fiction books come alive—such as a fire-breathing dragon—and watch a video of the authors discussing their books.

“The Google Lens covers are definitely increasing sales,” says Sean Curran, a manager of a Barnes & Noble in Montgomeryville, Pa. Typically, the store will prominently display books that have a well-known tie-in, such as a show on Netflix, a literary award nomination, or an appearance on a national talk show. These books and authors were largely unknown, yet they sold just as well as more prominent books, Curran says. 

Still, those kinds of tech gimmicks don’t always wow readers. Sourcebooks, the 11th-largest publisher, included a similar feature in its Dragon Brothers series, in which 3D dragons seemed to fly across the pages for people using augmented reality on their smartphones. But while readers said in their reviews that they appreciated the AR, in the end they talked more about the story itself. The tech didn’t seem to dramatically boost sales.

“I’ve tried so many things that didn’t work,” says Dominique Raccah, founder of Sourcebooks. “As an entrepreneur, you learn to fail, iterate, and start again.”

Raccah says she’s still a firm believer that when technology and emotion come together, it will change readers’ lives.

So far, though, she’s found that the best medium for books is, well, simply books.

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