After reading Comparative Literature and obtaining a Masters in Publishing Management, Florent Souillot joined French publishing group Flammarion. Six years later, Flammarion was bought out by Madrigall, the parent company of brands such as Gallimard, Denoël, J’ai Lu, Folio, Casterman and POL. Souillot is now in charge of digital development for France’s third largest publishing group which includes not only publishing houses but bookshops and distributors in the field of general literature, comic books and the humanities.
How can digital modernise a sector that’s still firmly rooted in the paper tradition? What opportunities should be seized? How are the group’s publishing houses managing the digital transition? We found out from Florent Souillot…
digital IN publishing: a multi-faceted role
What’s your role with Madrigall Group?
Florent Souillot: I report to the Director of Digital Strategy and work on a number of projects, both in-house, with the daily running of the publishing companies, and externally with various partners (publishers, bookshops, writers, public authorities and collective organisations). For example, we’re the interface between the publisher and the other players in the book world for all digital-related matters. We also work with the National Publishers’ Union to inform people and ensure a regular flow of information in the ecosystem of the various players in the book chain.
Internally, meanwhile, we assist publishers with various digital issues: we help set up procedures for documenting and structuring content, distributing it for promotional or commercial purposes, circulating information, and we help publishers with editorial projects when they’re devised for digital formats. Basically, we’re there to make sure everything runs smoothly across the whole chain, because digital is part of an overall movement which affects the very foundations of a publisher’s job: their relationship with the authors, designing and marketing projects, the contractual and legal framework, etc. There are issues of copyright and royalties, information in catalogues, structuring content, distribution, re-using and archiving…As you can see, it’s extremely diverse!
“You have to distinguish between what’s contextual and commercial in the short-term and the challenges of digital, i.e. new ways of publishing based on disintermediation, straight from the writer to the reader.”
digital: AN opportunitY TO RETHINK THE WHOLE valUE CHAIN
64% of large French have created a dedicated digital position; is it the same in publishing?
There are very few dedicated digital roles and publishers are trying to update their job and skills by introducing aspects of digital into their everyday routine. A professional qualification has actually been created in conjunction with the National Publishers’ Union and training organisations to formalise these digital skills. There’s a real learning curve with digital and considerable training requirements, so it’s essential for publishers to step up their skills and keep modernising the profession through digital.
Digital is often linked to editorial and copyright responsibilities; it’s challenging the role of publishing houses. The most active areas of development are the commercial aspects, from marketing to distribution.
Publishing is a profession that’s not very well known by the outside world and is a very diverse one: a lot of different jobs are involved in producing a book: legal, production, marketing, editorial, etc. Digital leads us to reconsider the question of value and the nature of everyone’s role: what it really contributes, its purpose, etc.
How do people view the digital revolution within your company?
I’m rather wary of the term “digital revolution” as it implies a total upheaval of everyone’s role, or even a depersonalised movement, whereas the development of digital publishing is governed by a logic that isn’t revolutionary, and the change in pace it involves (technical innovation, legal instability, commercial uncertainty, etc.) should prompt the people involved to take a stand.
Digital is a question of opportunities: that’s what people need to understand, and it’s the publisher’s job to invest some time in it now, or at least take the necessary measures to ensure the future of the company. It will allow us to rethink our profession, publish our authors’ works to an even wider readership, have new business opportunities and find out where our added value lies. The perception of digital depends on how developed the various editorial areas segments are and the role they play in the process of producing and distributing books. For some publishers, digital is just as much a part of their everyday routine as paper is, whilst for others, it doesn’t yet provide the right conditions for their profession. In that respect, I do think we’ve taken an important step in that we’re no longer at a stage where there’s complete misunderstanding or conflict between two separate worlds. We know that we have a role to play, that we do things that others don’t. It’s about making quality books, whatever the format, and digital, in certain conditions, can increase the potential readership.
inTRODUCING digital INTO A VERY spEcifiC MARKET
What products can you offer thanks to digital?
We offer standard digital format books (ePub, PDF, etc.),as well as interactive reading apps, products that allow you to browse between books and multimedia content, websites with editorial content, etc. We contact communities for certain genres directly, or via online booksellers for general public or lending books to local communities.
The Atlases by Autrement are a good example of a product that was designed specifically for a digital format: for printed books, you can now buy digital versions of the book, build up a map library, browse the various content via a layout designed for tablets, there’s an interactive table of contents, use an HD zoom, run text searches and personalise your reading environment.
Interface of the map library for tablets
There’s still too much instability and uncertainty around digital reading, particularly where the intermediary players are concerned, i.e. the conditions for distributing and publishing content. Without the necessary technical and commercial interoperability to ensure cross-channel sales and content, there’s no point creating innovative products, because the products won’t have a readership or an economic model.
We’ve identified the obstacles, but the drivers too. For example, a lab has just been set up in Paris called the European Digital Reading Lab (EDR, hosted by Cap Digital), to activate these drivers and find solutions to address the issues of content interoperability and accessibility. The idea is to create the right conditions for publishing projects that run on all operating systems and devise an agnostic tool that is optimised for the readers’ digital uses whilst also protecting copyright. But digital won’t be widespread until all this has been implemented.
“Although digital – despite a steady progression – is still negligible in terms of revenue, it is strategic for everything else: digital affects every aspect of the industry.”
In France we have a very specific, regulated, standardised book market: it’s very much affected by our political, historical, legal, industrial and commercial context. Digital can’t ignore this context, particularly when the solutions require a collective contribution (authors, bookshops, libraries, publishers, etc.).
In the States, growth in e-publishing products has slowed down – actually fallen slightly. In France, the sector is experiencing straight-line growth – in smaller proportions, maybe –but it’s continuing to rise steadily.
What initiatives in other countries could French publishers draw their inspiration from?
We get inspiration from the progress in terms of web standardisation: we’re a member of consortiums such as the IDPF (International Digital Publishing Forum, the trade and standards organisation for the digital publishing industry, Ed) and we take part in various workshops during which the future standards for producing and distributing content are drafted. A lot of companies are also members of Readium, which is part of the IDPF.
Another interesting example is the Tolino consortium in Germany for a self-publishing portal: this came about as a collective solution to the issue of the monopoly of content distribution. This is an issue that doesn’t only affect digital but printed books too. Tolino is the result of a joint effort from booksellers and a telecom operator to challenge the traditional e-book providers: it’s proof that a nationwide initiative can result in a viable alternative, and that’s why I think we can take inspiration from this project.
What advice would you give to other publishers embarking on the digital transformation?
First of all I’d say that they mustn’t see digital as some abstract thing that doesn’t concern them and that they can delegate to other people.
The first thing is to realise that its concerns all publishers, now, but that doesn’t stop you from having different answers in different situations and you mustn’t throw yourself into it and expect immediate profit. It’s better to plan ahead now rather than have to go back and deal with problems that will inevitably arise.
You should also beware of pat answers: everyone has an opinion about digital. Some people say it’s useless, that it’ll be the death of printed publishing. Rather than have pre-conceived ideas, ask the right questions and see how uses and the balance of power are changing.
“You have to understand that digital means asking fundamental questions about the industry: it’s no longer a question of short-term or direct commercial opportunities, but more of guaranteeing long-term sustainability. And that’s an argument that publishers can understand because publishing is an industry where projects take a long time to develop.”
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