The #FutureBook15 #BookTech Showcase: A 'richness of ideas'

The #FutureBook15 #BookTech Showcase: A 'richness of ideas'

"Pretty great, right?" You have to forgive us for our pride in this year's inaugural BookTech Showcase and FutureBook Award. When your Gold Award winner, Reedsy's Emmanuel Nataf, talks of working on partnerships as a direct result of this new competition featured at the 2015 FutureBook Conference, something's definitely going the right way. Our special thanks to Molly Flatt for her organisational skill and series of fine articles. As Nataf tells her here: "Too often, well-established players only start looking at startups when they feel threatened by them.” Congratulations to all involved for getting a new jump on that problem.—Porter Anderson

“Few publishers realise the potential richness of ideas startups offer”

With three months, 31 submissions, eight finalists and three judges under its belt, the BookTech live pitch-off finally hit the stage at the FutureBook conference last Friday, culminating in a well-deserved win for publishing professionals’ marketplace Reedsy.

“Winning the BookTech Company of the Year Award means that the publishing community recognizes the value of Reedsy and is excited about its potential,” says the platform’s 25-year-old founder-c.e.o. Emmanuel Nataf. “Our team all work long hours, and being noticed by our peers makes that collective effort even more meaningful. We’re thankful for this mark of trust and can’t wait to show them what we will be releasing in 2016.”

Designed to bring promising early-stage startups and industry insiders together for an afternoon of idea sharing and mutual feedback, the BookTech event—new to FutureBook this year—aims to dissolve the division between ‘them’ (the hungry new guard) and ‘us’ (the beleaguered old) in the hope of generating more constructive collaboration, and less flash-in-the-pan disruption, across the trade.

“We definitely need more opportunities for the publishing industry to connect with startups,” Nataf agrees. “Even though many publishers seemed to be celebrating the presence of more startups at this year's conference, I felt that few realised the potential richness of ideas and opportunities startups offer. Too often, well-established players only start looking at startups when they feel threatened by them.”

In this spirit our eight finalists, who were touting everything from a mobile storytelling platform to a ‘FitBit for writers’, pitched their visions to a gratifyingly packed room before being quizzed by judges and audience members alike (you can read profiles of all eight companies here).

Dan Kieran from Unbound kicked off the questions by praising the entrepreneurs for their courage, a sentiment echoed by fellow judges Eileen Burbidge from Passion Capital and Hannah Telfer from Penguin Random House. The judges’ approach was more encouraging probe than Dragon’s Den-style grill, although Burbidge—whose experience in the tech world has seen her witness countless pitches in both Silicon Valley and the UK—concluded that overall, although their concepts were highly inspiring, the finalists were simply too nice.

Pitchers would do well to abandon their whiff of apology and justification, she counselled.

Confidence and clarity are essential if you are to persuade experienced players that your baby has the potential to influence their world, and even early-stage companies with little more than a good idea and a Kickstarter campaign should already have a bold vision of where they are headed, with solid research and concrete projections to hand.

In the end, although both jury and audience found much to admire in all the entrants, the final judging was swift and unanimous.

Top contenders

Reedsy scooped the Gold Award for creating a platform that looks set to powerfully impact on both independent and traditional publishing by empowering writers, publishers, editors and designers to build hybrid careers and work together quickly and effortlessly through bespoke, user-friendly digital tools.

The company’s new collaborative editing platform, which was revealed for the first time at the event, is a fine example of how Reedsy cherry-picks from existing technologies to create services that are tailor-made for the needs of the industry. (Here is a video about the concept.)

The Silver Award went to exam revision app Gojimo, for its deep understanding of the behaviours of a tricky target demographic—students—and its lean, mean commitment to making things happen despite a slow-moving educational publishing sector. The judges particularly appreciated founder George Burgess’ honesty around the challenge of monetisation but his determination, regardless, to keep producing reams of effective content.

Finally, our Bronze Award winner was The Owl Field, Michel Lafrance’s immersive audio drama startup, which is using binaural technology and digital sound design to pioneer ‘virtual reality’ audiobooks. Lafrance’s technical proficiency was no less impressive than his determination to innovate in a rapidly growing but woefully underserved field, and the judges said they loved his drive to bring an innovative storytelling experience to people with sight loss.

Showcase as beta: more to come

Feedback from finalists, judges and audience members has been very positive, but this was most definitely a project in beta. Friday’s event is only the forerunner of a stream of activity that we hope to evolve, improve and expand over time.

“I really enjoyed seeing startups from Canada and Germany, and I believe the challenge for next year will be to attract more New York or San Francisco-based startups,” Nataf says. “Those startup ecosystems are highly competitive and I'm sure it will lead to a fierce battle. I would love to see BookTech considered the major competition for any media or publishing startup in the world.”

And of course, the true success of Friday’s event will only be seen in the months to come.

  • Will we see publishing houses investing in fresh ideas, hiring unexpected talents and actively seeking out new opportunities?
  • Will we see tech entrepreneurs refining their visions according to the feedback of those with decades of publishing experience?

“So far, Reedsy's growth has been completely organic,” Nataf explains. “We haven’t spent a penny on paid advertising. That’s the result of joining great industry conferences and meeting with different companies. Regarding the 2015 FutureBook conference, I'm already working on a couple of partnerships thanks to conversations I had there. Pretty great, right?”

It’s certainly a start.

The BookTech Showcase (#BookTech) was a new element of the FutureBook Conference for 2015. Hosted by tech and culture journalist Molly Flatt, the session invited eight book tech companies to take part in a live pitch-off for a panel of industry and tech experts. A real-time vote then determined the winners of the bronze, silver and gold FutureBook Awards. The overall winner, Reedsy, was named The FutureBook BookTech Company of the Year 2015.

The judges of the showcase, who interrogated attendees from the selected book tech companies, were Hannah Telfer, Group Director of Consumer and Digital Development at Penguin Random House UK; Dan Kieran, CEO and Co-Founder of Unbound; and Eileen Burbidge, Partner at Passion Capital and one of the UK’s most influential tech venture capitalists.

In Molly Flatt's series on the contenders (in order of publication):

Here is the FutureBook Conference site.

Main image - Eileen Burbidge