Boldly going

This morning we opened the doors to more than 500 delegates attending the FutureBook Conference 2011, our annual event looking at and ­discussing the digital book business.

This year’s conference is the biggest yet. In fact, aside from May’s Bookseller Industry Awards, it is the biggest single event we have ever staged—35% bigger than last year’s conference. The numbers, and the growth in those figures, show that the book business is meeting the challenges set by the digital transition head-on. It is a point worth underlining: in the past 12 months publishers’ digital sales have gone from first to fifth gear, and although there may have been bumps and scrapes along the way, the car has not been driven off the road.

However, this may not always hold true. When Penguin chief executive John Makinson warns that he sees “dark clouds” on the horizon, we should all take note. The key findings of our own Digital Census show publishers have become increasingly bullish, but remain wary over whether digital growth will translate into profits—and over the growing dominance of digital giants such as Amazon, Google and Apple.

For publishers, the nightmare scenario is that a strong digital market is achieved at the expense of the physical market, resulting in flat sales and lower profits—hardly a business strategy one could sell to staff, authors, or even investors. There is a sunny upland of a ­thriving digital book market, but to reach it publishers need to successfully cross a gloomy valley of stagnant print sales.

There is still time for those holding the copyrights to dictate terms. Publishers need to think innovatively about how they can sustain the physical showrooms of the book shop, while looking at the opportunities digital throws up: international, apps, start-ups, e-book lending, consumer data. FutureBook will be a timely opportunity to catch our breath, and talk about how far we’ve come and what we’ve learned on the journey.