Curiouser and curiouser: What we discovered at FutureBook 2014

Curiouser and curiouser: What we discovered at FutureBook 2014

What was the mood coming out of FutureBook 2014? Positive, challenging, grown-up—and most importantly, still curious.

The day began with three different words: content, community and commerce. Keynote George Berkowski set the tone with a challenging talk sayings that publishers needed to focus on other entertainment companies as their main rivals, not other publishing houses.

"You are not in the same industry, but the people who are reading Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games are the same people sat on the tube reading BuzzFeed and every day. You have got to figure out who your competitors are. They are not the big five. They are not the independent publishers. They are the people trying to get people's attention and doing it in a flashy way, with whizzbang and candy floating over your screen."

In this respect, Berkowski picked up on one of the themes of the day, also outlined by fellow keynote, global c.e.o. of WGSN Carla Buzasi: find the audience—worry less about current revenue streams and more about where and how the audience is consuming the information. “We know revenues on mobile aren’t where we would like them to be, but what if we could build the audiences to such an extent to offset that?”  

Third keynote Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon (pictured) was more cautious by comparison. He needs to worry both where the revenue is coming from today, as well as where it might be found in the future. He said he was betting on three things for the future - books, kids and new ways of connecting authors and readers. "The format of books isn't the challenge posed by digital," Weldon said. "The challenge is about how you get noticed and how you get paid. If you have the very best books and authors of every kind, and publishers and editors, there is a chance you're going to stand out."

Weldon was clear that PRH did not have to become a retailer to achieve this—"It is naive and arrogant to think Penguin Random House could become a retailer”—and neither did it have to adopt new and possibly unsustainable business models, such as subscription, when the old model is not broken.

This spirit of grown-up debate prevailed throughout FutureBook this year. We have changed from a sector marching in unison and invariably in one direction, to one where there must be disagreements over strategy and execution because the future is not the same for everyone.

I was pleased to see this reflected in the conference this time around. It is also being taken back into publishers’ offices. In a panel titled New Voices: Who Should You Hire and How Will They Change Your Company?, Orion's digital marketing director Marissa Hussey told the conference that publishing needed to hire "people who want to know the answers and learn new things". And once they are hired, Hussey said they needed to be supported and trusted to do their jobs. "I don't expect my boss to understand everything," Hussey said. "I need him to respect me and be supportive."

The backdrop for this year’s event was the conclusion of negotiations between Amazon and Hachette over their new terms, with Hachette gaining back control over the consumer pricing of e-books. The assumption is that the other big publishers will follow just as Simon & Schuster led. At FutureBook, Weldon said that the business model around e-books was “as clear as mud”.

But it seems to me that this dizzying period is coming an end, and that these “multi-year” deals Amazon is now signing with publishers suggests that the business may be stabilising. If that is so, then the hard work is in front of us - grown-up, challenging but ultimately positive. The incurious need not apply!