The Bookseller’s FutureBook Conference held on Monday (see pp10-13) showed a trade comfortable in its own post-digital skin and willing to confront the broader issues we face—from globalisation to freedom to publish, from who we are today to where we need to go tomorrow to be different.
In 2010, the conference was just an interrogation into how digital would shape the future of this business, with e-reading considered to be the format that would re-write and re-shape the fundamentals—just as Napster had changed music, the internet newspapers, and streaming the film and TV business. The early years were marked by hope, optimism and concern, with the trade energised by the disruption, but disturbed by the pace. The FutureBook audience wanted enhanced e-books to work; subscription to layer on a new way of selling content; and for algorithms to drive book sales. Some may even have wanted publishers to concentrate on billion-dollar apps and a “few, not the many” approach to books. But the conversations that began all those years ago over digital were never going to be answered by narrowing what we could talk about, and so it has proved. We have gone deeper, and become cleverer in our response to this new world.
We understand better how bookshops can operate on high streets decimated by online shopping. In his opening address at the conference, James Daunt warned bookshops not to be boring, a deceptively simple message that is both about retail theatre but also about sloughing off the deadening weight of corporatisation (apparent now at Barnes & Noble, and in the Noughties at the HMV-owned Waterstones). He encouraged the use of customer data, but stressed that it needed to improve decision-making, not replace it—a view reinforced by author Chris Duffey’s later keynote on artificial intelligence.
We get, too, that a creative business needs to be creative and, as Orion m.d. Katie Espiner suggested at the conference, that publishing and bookselling thrive when relationships are strong and consistent. But we are also a sector that needs to widen the lens of what we see, and broaden the pipeline to new talent. This trade is at its best when it is at its most human, with all of the frailties, inconsistencies and contradictions that come with that—or, as poet M C Angel put it on the day, “the pure gritty pain” that can only be expressed through the “pure honesty of writing”.
The conference showed too that as businesses engaged in truth-telling, we must acknowledge that what we don’t publish is now as important as what we do; that to broadcast is to make decisions that have ramifications and that, as both Penguin Random House and Hachette have acknowledged, we are companies with values.
We have also opened ourselves to further change. “We are all more than our labels,” FutureBook Person of the Year Kit de Waal said in her closing keynote. It is a sentiment we can apply to publishing too. Over the past decade, we have become more than what we were. The job now is to become what we ought to be.