Why can’t we innovate? Perspectives from the FutureBook 40

Almost a year ago exactly, The Bookseller revealed the names of the inaugural FutureBook 40—a roll call of some of the most exciting publishing innovators in the UK. I was lucky enough to be one of them. But as the anniversary of announcement loomed I started to wonder: what’s changed in the industry since that list was published? My own reflection: not a lot. So what’s holding publishers back? I asked seven fellow disruptors for their take.

Sharmaine Lovegrove, Dialogue Books
"The publishing industry has a focus on job title and career progression rather than an obsession with matching the book with powerful, innovative ideas that amplify the story we want to connect with readers which is crucial to pushing the boundaries of creativity. Publishing professionals tend to move around companies for their next opportunity so the culture remains quite static. Other creative industries tend to have a greater diversity of skills and experiences in their companies because they are willing to hire people from different industries."

Lovegrove took an unorthodox route to her current position—from opening a bookshop in Berlin to becoming ELLE’s books editor, rather than the traditional progression of English degree plus masters plus internship. But she’s the exception, not the rule. Take a look at the Glassdoor reviews of any of the big publishers and you’ll find it’s not a very pretty picture. "Middle class, white ivory tower" and "people are cosy" are just a couple of soundbites from PRH’s company page.

Publishing is notoriously tough to break into—which inevitably creates a climate of fear that prevents career mobility. So if you want to improve your ideas, you might want to empower your people. "The future lies in people—and giving them the capital to do innovative things", explains Alex Dunsdon: SAATCHiNVEST partner and co-founder of The Bakery, which connects startups with corporates. "Find a visionary person internally—change has to start from the top".

Sam Missingham, Lounge Marketing
"I think big publishers think that they have ‘weathered’ the digital transformation of publishing, so there is no imperative to innovate. To be so complacent in an ecosystem with Amazon is total madness."

Amazon has architected its business so that cashflow isn’t a concern—meaning that investing unallocated capital in innovation is in its very DNA. So how can publishers even begin to compete without a complete restructure—and without the cash to invest spend on innovation?

It seems that publishers are still struggling to work out the meaning of ‘digital transformation.’ Is it enough to pay lip service with social media book tours or is there an opportunity to create whole new revenue streams with the IP, talent and rich content resources publishers have access to? There’s no reason why established companies couldn’t have created the likes of BookBub, Pigeonhole and NetGalley themselves.

SImon Key, Big Green Bookshop
"The larger publishers tend to be far too reactive and it seems that the only publishers taking risks are the smaller independents. It's these big publishers who are in a much better position to influence people's reading habits and they could be investing so much more on new and exciting authors rather than waiting for something to happen and then jumping on the bandwagon."

When you’re playing with big budgets—and in an industry that’s already struggling—it’s difficult to stop being reactive and consider taking risks. But there are some very simple ways to adopt the disruptive approach of the indies. Trendwatching’s head of insights David Mattin has a few ideas: "Can you essentially create a startup inside your company? Create a small team with the sole purpose of looking out to the horizon, thinking new thoughts and innovating. Or of course it can be hugely powerful to bring startups inside your organisation, too".

Sophie Rochester, Yodomo
"For the biggest publishers, there is a lot of investment going into innovation for new publishing products and interesting business models, but this investment is really directed at startups via sister funds—for example, Founders Factory and Holtzbrink, Hachette and Educapital (edtech), Gruner and Jahr's Digital Venture fund, etc. What would be encouraging to see, perhaps, is more investment into 'intrapreneurism' within the industry itself?"

We get it. It’s not that you’re not spending on innovation at all. It’s just that maybe outsourcing that aspect of the company means that all that disruptive, creative power isn’t at the heart of your business. Can you employ someone internally to get people really excited about different ways of making books interesting, engaging and relevant for customers today?

Aki Schilz, The Literary Consultancy
"The industry’s relentlessly defensive strategy has meant that there’s rarely space for true innovation; we could, frankly, learn a lot more from the start-up world about risk-taking, new business models, and models for investment from repayable finance to big tech partnerships and a better relationship with philanthropic giving."

It’s really interesting—and absolutely no surprise—to see another of the FutureBook 40 mentioning startups—and their capacity to take risks. If you’re not open to moving current staff into a startup-style team, you can still generate the same innovative buzz internally. Procter & Gamble currently has around 130 ‘startups’ operating within the business, while John Lewis’ JLab incubator program is designed to help the retailer stay dynamic and relevant. Focus on working with tech partners rather than feeling like you’re competing and you might avoid the defensive strategy mentioned by Schilz.

Anna Gerber, Visual Editions
"The publishing industry has a real fear of taking new kinds of risks. From our experience, real innovation and disruption is happening outside the industry, rather than coming from within. When we worked with writer Joe Dunthorne on The Fir Tree for COS, a few months ago, we were struck by how Joe’s writing reached and touched different kinds of readers beyond the book, beyond the bookstore while still making cultural impact."

Surely commercial partnerships aren’t the most disruptive thing happening in books today? But just maybe, working with a brand or retailer might be the way to experiment with fresh ideas. Visual Editions’ project with COS and Joe Dunthorne was a multi-sensory story experience in stores and online, involving audio, scent and, of course, the written word. Could you road-test new formats or concepts with a retailer, restaurant or hotel—and reach new customers who might not venture into bookshops?

Laura Jones, 404 INK
“Publishing is failing to innovate due to the very structure of the industry supply chain in itself. It’s a relic that could do with a good defrag and patch update in the form of getting out of the loop of having to meet quotas in the quantity of publishing which is one reason there are too many books and not enough shelf space. We're failing to innovate because we're failing to ask 'WHY are we publishing this?' and failing to answer it honestly."

It’s time to take a deep breath, stand back and look at the bare bones of the industry: structure, supply chain and finally—product. Are you iterating at any point or just desperately trying to keep up?

David Mattin explains: "When it comes to innovation within corporates, the fact is that they've generally become a large business in the first place because they're doing something that makes them a lot of money. Over time they understandably become very focused on doing more of that thing to the exclusion of much else. So they lose the ability and impetus to look to the new and innovate."

Overall, it sounds like it’s time to think much, much bigger than we are today.