Managing traditional book businesses during a time of change was never going to be easy. Last weekend, The Bookseller held its first ever hack, FutureBook Hack, demonstrating that if it can’t be easy, it can at least be fun.
As WME agent Simon Trewin—who proposed the hack at last year’s FutureBook Conference—writes, the event was like a “legal high” for publishing. After 30 hours trapped in a room at UCL with 75 hackers, Trewin said he felt “a kind of elation about the future of the publishing industry” he hadn’t felt for some time.
The publishing industry is often accused of adopting an ostrich-like approach to change. It is fair criticism. Amazon came along unchallenged for years before we realised that Jeff Bezos really did think of himself as a cheetah hunting sickly gazelle. Publishing was not the first industry to hack itself—hacks have taken place across the media space for years.
While one of our largest publishers has a business strategy based on NOT being a pioneer. Yet the trade also has a good past record of tactical innovation. As Nielsen Book’s Andre Breedt said at the hack, we would not now have the barcode without the ISBN, invented in the late 1960s by the British book business, after prompting by W H Smith. Breedt might also have identified BookScan, neé BookTrack, built by The Bookseller’s former parent company, Whitaker, in the 1990s.
It is similarly easy to characterise change as a negative force. A recent New Yorker article, “The Disruption Machine” by Jill Lepore, takes the innovations industry to task for its “reckless and ruthless” philosophy, describing the theory of disruption as a “competitive strategy for an age seized by terror”. Disrupt, die anyway. For Lepore it is a philosophy driven by people who would “convince a generation of people who want to do good and do well to learn, instead, remorselessness”. For others, Lepore is on the side of the nostalgists, those who see the iceberg, but carry on playing music on the deck anyway.
The people I met at the hack were not remorseless, nor were they nostalgists. They were inspired by the love of a product they had intimate connections with, and a shared desire to improve upon. As Pan Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd put it to the audience: solve your problems, not ours. Such openness needs to be celebrated. Like many, I have grown weary of the Manichean struggle between the disrupted and the disruptor. Publishers are not victims; they do not manufacture buggy whips. Booksellers are not loomers.
A better book business will not be the result of an endless battle over margins, or an unceasingly hostile narrative about ‘big’ publishing.
The winner of the first FutureBook Hack was an apposite choice: Voices. We can all listen more.