Tomorrow’s people

Few would have thought 10 years ago, when The Bookseller launched its publishing conference FutureBook, that Waterstones would be the place to find the future books. Back in 2010, with the chain failing, Amazon’s Kindle sales rocketing and the newly launched iPad turning creative heads, we looked set for a period dominated by digital as the book was quickly atomised and dispatched in myriad forms into the ether.

Yet, here we are: on 25th November, James Daunt—managing director of Waterstones since 2011, and now also chief executive of the largest book chain in the US, Barnes & Noble—will kick off the event with a speech not just about the future of high street retailing but also about the role of the printed book, which remains a bookshop’s life-blood, and the bellwether format for us all.

However, if you think those early conferences got it all wrong, I disagree. Change happened, and it was unnerving and exhilarating. Today for many publishers digital sales top 30% of their business, with some types of books and authors indexing ahead even of that number. There is, too, a thriving community of self-published writers and digital-only publishers finding readers across the Kindle-verse, with keen pricing strategies that reflect their lean operations. The analysis provided by Bookstat indicates not just a growing digital market, but one that has become distinct from print, with its own rules, serving different reader needs and creating its own author "middle-class", invisible to the rest of the sector.

Meanwhile, the iPad may have failed to provide a platform for enhanced e-books or book apps, but smart devices are today’s content hubs, leading to changes in how we buy and what we consume. For publishers—and for now—this means audiobooks, but it will not stop there.

Indeed, the FutureBook Conference in 2029 may look as confusing to this year’s delegates as 2019’s event would doubtless look to those first-year attendees, who marvelled at the Elements app, and fretted over digital piracy. It is not a given that Barnes & Noble is rescuable, that Amazon won’t grow beyond our ability to restrain it, or that today we don’t underestimate what 10 years ago we overestimated.

Yet in charting the future, the mistake has been to think that format alone or a different way of thinking would supplant the old, or that the business model shift seen in other industries would replace how publishers and booksellers operate. The truth is that publishing is a business best understood from the inside; it has been difficult to disrupt because the relationship between authors and readers is not easily replaced by algorithm or gadget.

The idea that legions of readers will continue to buy books from high street locations out of the hands of booksellers, often paying higher prices than they would elsewhere for a format that degrades over time, makes little sense from a business perspective—until you do it. And then you realise that the future of the book is much like its past: complicated.