The Bookseller's conference FutureBook 2015 was a timely reminder for the publishing industry that its digital transformation has barely begun, that it has a whole universe of possibilities to explore, and that its careful progression may yet turn into an unsightly stumble.
Many of us, perhaps, went into the event thinking about the “new normal”—that accommodation between a stalled e-book market, the under explored mobile book market, and the revived print market—but speeches at the beginning and end of the day challenged this. And inbetween these two poles, the day consisted of examples of new businesses, new approaches, and new content-types that should redefine what we think of publishing today. The industry — from Mr Quin to Game of Thrones, from Lost My Name to Touchpress — is already doing things differently.
Springer Nature chief scientific officer Annette Thomas began the day stressing how the two businesses that now make up that group had to change their approach to content, "the power is no longer in the proprietary, the power is in open". She also made it plain that simply restructuring those businesses did not mean they had changed, that change was more fundamental than a simple re-wiring: "We understood that what seems disruptive today - some of which will succeed, but some will fail - is the future for tomorrow. If we want to be part of that [future], we have to embrace it."
Faber chief executive Stephen Page tackled one theme directly: this new status quo. “I’m no fan of the new normal” he said as a small video played in the background blowing up the words.
Page’s point was that this changed world needs to be faced afresh: that even during Faber’s recent poor financial period the company never shirked from trying new things, be they new approaches to its audiences or new ways of defining what Page termed the ‘not book’. [It was no surprise that Faber won a FutureBook Award for FaberMembers.com - an effort to talk direct to its audience, online and offline, and develop a new commercial relationship with them.]
In publishing terms, futures have been painted as unappealing but as apparently obvious as human migration to the Red Planet. Ebooks will eat print. Subscription will replace digital sales. Shops will be wiped out by online.
For a decade or more publishers have been berated, taunted, criticised for their inability to ‘get it’, ‘it’ being the future. But here we are today, not on a dying planet but a changed one. So my question today is, Are we done with revolution and change? Do we need to dream of another publishing planet any more?
He also warned that the industry needed to find room for a “new generation” to adapt and develop the sector, and one that was more diverse than the current one. I saw on Twitter that some attendees thought that mobile was the theme of the day, but for me the grander theme was about how the industrty must respond to how mobile changes not just how content will be delivered, but more importantly how it will be received and by whom.
As Ether Books' Maureen Scott put it on her panel, mobile is the new internet. It is the gateway to content — from film to music, and yes, even books — but also a deliverer of an audience that will want things in different ways. If the e-reader delivered readers and matched them with e-books made only for reading, then mobile offers up something new. Smartphone users "touch their phones 221 times a day," she said. "Are they touching anything you're doing?"
It was point stressed by many speakers from Pottermore’s Susan Jurevics to musician and rapper Akala. Jurevics explained how Pottermore had been re-engineered to deliver content how its audience wanted it, open and accessible. Akala simply asked, “are we doing everything we can to collaborate with this new technology to reach new audiences in an innovative and interesting way and to enhance the experience for existing audiences?” This difference was perhaps most memorably articulated by The Pigeonhole’s Anna Jean Hughes who quipped, “We are all one handed readers now”.
Kobo’s incoming chief executive Michael Tamblyn was typically deft in his speech, delivered towards the end of the day, and focused on the reader. “We all took a breather when the fantastic growth of e-books finally slowed. But that breather is over.” He said #FutureBook15 came at an interesting junction, between this successful past and this challenging future.
Of course, FutureBook is that big day when much gets said and much happens, but it is the ripples that occur afterwards that are of equal (if not more) importance, the blogs written post FutureBook (and I commend in particular Heather McDaid's reports over at SYP Scotland's site), the business meetings that take place following the conference, and the decisions taken in light of the discussions.
As Page tweeted the follow day:
Woke up after @TheFutureBook optimistic that industry looked hard at important issues.
We did, and what happens next over the next 12 months will be vital.