The FutureBook Awards: a brief history of innovation

The FutureBook Awards: a brief history of innovation

The winners of this year’s FutureBook Awards will be the eighth since the first ceremony, back in March 2011. What can their history tell us about how the industry has changed these past seven years?

Any awards ceremony offers a snapshot of the industry it judges, highlighting not only what it regards as exceptionally good – its winners – but also the qualities it vales: its categories. Awards offer a version of history written as it unfolds, one that sometimes challenges the perspective added by hindsight. A glance at the winners at the fourteenth Oscars, for instance, reveals us that Citizen Kane was not always so highly esteemed, taking home only one award from the nine it was nominated for.

The lists of nominees, categories, and winners at the FutureBook Awards – these snapshots from some tumultuous times – tell us how publishing has answered the past decade’s digital disruptions: the arrival of the Kindle and iPad, of ebooks, apps, and digital audiobooks.

This year's finalists. Video produced by Chris @ Rogue Robot.

The winner lists tell several stories, such as the domination of innovative children’s publishing by Nosy Crow, shortlisted for at least one award in each of the seven previous ceremonies, and winner of six awards in all – five in the children’s product categories, plus the Most Inspiring Digital Person award for founder Kate Wilson in 2014. The company’s absence from this year’s shortlists may create the opportunity for a new success story.

The early domination of the product categories by app developer Touch Press tells a very different story – of how tough the digital marketplace has become. Winner of four awards in the first three years, two in 2011 in partnership with Faber – The Solar System and The Waste Land – and two more in 2013, with Disney Animated and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Touch Press walked away from publishing in 2015, selling the rights to its paid-for apps and refocusing its attention on sponsored content, despite 7.5 million downloads of its apps and more than £3m in revenues.

The history of the award for best start-up – which lives on in the BookTech Company of the Year pitch-off – reinforces this. The inaugural shortlist comprised five promising innovators. The winner, crowd-funding publishing platform Unbound, has gone from strength to strength, winning a second award three years later for its website, and is now an established part of the publishing landscape. Of the rest, Bloomsbury Reader and 24 Symbols are both still in excellent shape, the former successfully publishing new and out-of-print content digitally, the latter making a success of ebook and audiobook subscription where others have struggled.

Bardowl, however, which won the award for tech innovation that year, and was Best Start-up in 2012, closed its audiobook subscription service in 2015; while the history of Anobii is as lively as any book read on its platform – initially a social networking site for readers, it was acquired by HMV in 2011, sold to Sainsbury’s for £1 eighteen months later, then divided into two: its ebook sales division, renamed ebooks for Sainsbury’s, closed in 2016, which the social networking site lives on.

Even the semantics of how the names of some of the awards have changed over the past seven years can tell us how industry attitudes have developed. Some demonstrate how digital has moved from being something outside our core business, to become business as usual. So, the annual award for innovative marketing started out as ‘Best Digital Marketing Campaign’, before reflecting a more holistic approach with variations on ‘Best Integrated Digital Marketing Campaign’ and ‘Best use of Digital in a Marketing/Publicity Campaign’. This year it is simply ‘FutureBook Campaign of the Year’.

Other changes reflect shifting emphases, and a less narrow focus on specific formats. The awards for digital products began as ‘Best app/enhanced eBook/interactive book’ in 2011; in the years when apps looked like they might be the future of the industry, they became ‘Best app’ (with separate awards for adult, children’s, and reference/non-trade). By 2014, they recognised ‘Best Digital Book’, and this year celebrate ‘FutureBook Book of the Year’, a category including apps, audiobooks, Amazon’s new Kindle in Motion format, and more. ‘Best Website’, another of the inaugural awards, has also become format-agnostic; its equivalent this year is ‘Platform of the Year’, with separate awards for Consumer and Reference/Education sectors, and nominees including Penguin Podcasts amidst the websites.

Most strikingly of all, not one of this year’s awards includes the word ‘Digital’, underlining the fact that innovation in publishing has moved on from a focus on technology towards a broader celebration of the kind of creativity that technology has helped make possible. The leaders and disruptors who will be honoured this Friday are not, as they once were, ‘digital publishing persons’, but innovators across a wide range of areas, from corporate responsibility to crowd-funded diversity. Good luck to them all.

The winners of this year’s FutureBook Awards will be announced at the FutureBook 2017 Conference on December 1st.