As voice technologies become ubiquitous, even book publishers aren’t immune to how the hottest trend in digital content. EContent magazine recently had a chance to interview Bradley Metrock, CEO of Score Publishing, which owns and operates Digital Book World (DBW), about how voice is changing publishing. From the audiobook to Alexa, publishers are contending with the realities of a “voice-first” world. DBW is the annual gathering of the wide world of publishing, and the 2018 event will take place Oct. 2-4 in Nashville, Tenn. at the Music City Center. 

Q: Those of us in the publishing industry are hearing about the impending move to a “voice-first” world. But voice content isn’t new to book publishers, there’s already a long history of audio books. Is the book publishing world responding to the new “voice-first” paradigm differently than other arms of the publishing industry?

A: No, I don’t think so. I think publishers of all shapes, sizes, and types–regardless of medium, whether books, magazines, whatever – are looking around, thinking about all of the content they’ve accumulated, and wondering how exactly that content is going to make its way into the Internet of
Things. Because that’s the challenge.

In order for Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby and all the other voice assistants and smart speakers to be able to direct readers to that content, they have to know it exists. Which means not only getting it into each of these ecosystems, but it also means thinking critically about what additional layers of functionality get added to it. Do you create an Alexa skill or a flash briefing to enable users to access audiobook content? Do you bundle some content together? Or do you simply bring audiobooks and podcasts, one by one, into the ecosystem by themselves? And what about voice experiences intended to complement an existing print or digital book? What are best practices there?

These are the questions everyone is trying to figure out, all here at the same time.

Q: Do you see parallels between the shift toward ebooks and the new demand for audiobooks?

A: I think we’ll continue to see cyclical consumer behavior with regard to books. People go from not reading at all for a while, to reading print books, to reading digital books/ebooks, to consuming audiobooks, and back again, based on macro factors as well as their own individual preferences
shifting. That’s why media narratives like “print is dead” or “audiobooks are everything” should be taken lightly.

Some people rely on ebooks. They rely on both the accessibility as well as the portability. This won’t change. But what is interesting is that you’re seeing continued innovation within digital books, not just with audio, but also with interactive content. One of the highest-rated books nominated for the Digital Book World Awards this year is a phenomenal interactive work called Galdo’s Gift. It’s great to see publishers ignore media narratives and continue to experiment and forge innovative new paths.

Q: How are devices like Amazon’s Echo or Google Home changing the way book publishers think about content?

A: These mainstream voice assistants have changed a lot, primarily due to their high level of accuracy – their speech recognition is now better than most humans – as well as their ubiquity; they’re everywhere. So now you’re able to see companies like Novel Effect create voice-driven experiences,
which add new layers of functionality on top of existing books, creating possibilities we never thought possible.

Q: How else are publishers going beyond just making audiobooks available on these devices?

A: Publishers are realizing that voice assistants and smart speakers can play interesting roles in marketing books, from flash briefings which users consume on a regular basis, to Alexa skills that offer deeper engagement with characters or choice-driven supplemental narratives…there’s a lot of
potential with these devices even as they are now.

But just wait until Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant take that next step, to understand your personal context and really be able to personalize themselves to you, and you’ll have assistants that can recommend books to you, and recommend podcasts or other audio to you, based on an
extended history of books you’ve read and enjoyed, and other media you’ve consumed. Voice assistants are about to be of fundamental importance in the book discovery process – give it no more than 12 to 18 months from now.

Q: How can corporate publishers take advantage of voice-first technology?

A: Corporate publishers – i.e. companies that aren’t traditional publishers at all, but simply publish a lot of material, like a Southwest Airlines, a Stripe, or an HP – have the opportunity to use voice assistants and voice-first technology to extend their brand in meaningful ways that regular publishers don’t always have the opportunity to do. For example, if Nissan creates a voice experience around a published catalog of upcoming cars, there’s monetization there that opens a lot of doors for high production values. Companies like this are, unsurprisingly, spending a lot of money on developing these Alexa skills and Google actions for this very reason.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the voice-related innovations coming down the pipe?

A: Google Duplex gave us a glimpse of the next evolution of voice-first technology – voice assistants will be proactive, and it will be context-driven, very soon. So instead of speaking to Alexa and Alexa not knowing who I am from one question to the next, Alexa will soon be telling me information without me even asking, that is custom-tailored just for me based on Amazon’s knowledge of my preferences.

This will open a lot of doors for innovation in voice technology while also continuing to challenge society on where the line is, for each of us, with regards to our personal privacy and data security. 

Q: What specific companies are innovating, in terms of voice-first technology and publishing?

A: HarperCollins was one of the first to create a flash briefing to promote books – they were one of the first guests we booked for the very first Alexa Conference. Companies like Tellables are innovating on creating digital stories around voice. And we’re continuing to see all sorts of brand extensions or IP extensions involving voice, such as the recent Westworld audio game, playable through Alexa, which supported Season 2 of the popular HBO show. All of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses and you’re seeing active experimentation dominate the marketplace right now.

Q: What are some of the other important trends at Digital Book World this year?

A: The continued emphasis on all things audio – audiobooks, podcasts, and voice assistants – is a major component, while the renewed push for standards and accessibility, of course, is important throughout the industry. There’s just a strong desire for something new – something fresh – to bring the publishing and tech industries together, to share together and network together, and that’s what Digital Book World 2018 offers. It’s going to be a great event.