#FutureBook16: The future of the book is... human

#FutureBook16: The future of the book is... human

2016 – it has been agreed – is the worst year ever, and publishing hasn’t escaped the catastrophe. When one of the opening keynote speakers at #FutureBook16, Tim Hely Hutchinson of Hachette UK, said “the book market is in secular decline” it felt like time to get our coats. Indeed, later in conference Andrew Keen asked the audience why we were in the book business at all, suggesting that we should go and get real jobs.

It’s easy to feel our jobs are threatened. Publishers are being disintermediated as technology connects readers and writers directly. The rapid pace of audio, video and digital has left the analogue book gathering dust. While virtual and augmented reality chase each other around the hype cycle, chatbots replace human conversation and the internet of things connects our devices, turning people into mere data points.

Despite all this, #FutureBook16 ended up by feeling like a celebration of all that is human in the book industry. Whether we're empathising with customers’ problems, testing ideas with users, attracting talented staff or collaborating with startups, it is people - their insights, skills, differences and vulnerabilites - that are fuelling the digital revolution in publishing.

Widely experienced and respected digital consultant Eva Appelbaum kicked off her keynote by urging us to take the digital conversation back to a human-centred perspective. We might be in turbulent, messy and disruptive times but the future is not grim.

Technology is becoming better, faster and cheaper, and as such we are now digital humans. Appelbaum said, “Digital is not a silo, or technology, or a channel, or format, or function, or a person or a team’s responsibility. Start thinking about mindset, culture, skills and behaviours of the digital age.”

I found this an incredibly heartening message as it provided the opportunity for everyone to thrive in digital age, not just those with ‘hard’ skills like coding or interactive design. Appelbaum spoke of having brave leadership, empowered staff, and putting customers, audiences and users at the heart of what publishing is and does.

Understanding users drives innovation in product and business models. Chief digital and technical officer of Bonnier AB, Anki Ahrnell, provided a toolbox to help publishers take advantage of the opportunities provided by technology. Her focus on understanding the value chain wasn’t an abstract business concept but about empathy with author and user needs.

The sessions with startups emphasised this focus on users. In How it works: the startup, founder Anna Jean Hughes shared how she sketched out the idea for digital bookclub app The Pigeonhole on the back of napkin. She said the app was designed to enhance authors’ experience of publishing and readers’ experience of reading. She admitted that startups need a certain arrogance to believe they can create products and services that provide a better experience, especially when the statistics on startup survival are so brutal.

Startups appear to have the edge over traditional publishers as they are closer to users and their needs. Indeed, many startups are in the business of problem solving. It was empathy for researchers’ problems that drove Jan Reichelt to found Mendeley, a platform for researchers that was acquired by Elsevier in 2013. To be able to tap into user-driven innovation you either need to have the problem yourself or be close to people with problems.

Reichelt urged us to build connections with communities and to have structures, systems and people in place to develop greater understanding of what users want – and what they don’t yet know they want. He spoke of how Mendeley had 3,500 advisers on the platform; when communities are connected the line between customer, user and provider becomes increasingly blurred.

In Hands up: what publishers and startups can do together, there was much talk of innovation within the market. The relationship between publishing businesses and tech startups provides a mutually beneficial ecosystem, and the panel discussed the different models this could take:

  • The publisher provides content to a startup through licencing.
  • The startup licences its technology for the publisher to use, such as through white labelling or partnership.
  • Both parties can benefit from access to the market through each other’s distribution channels.
  • The publisher offers desk space to startups and taps into their entrepreneurial energy.

Acquisition was never far from people’s minds, with Hachette UK’s acquisition of Neon Play mentioned throughout the day. I sometimes worry that publishers outsource innovation to startups, buying in expertise rather than developing it in house. However, the power balance is shifting, for example when startup Storytel bought Sweden’s oldest publisher Norstedts earlier this year.

The final startup session of the day was the 2016 BookTech showcase. As one of the 2015 finalists I thoroughly enjoyed watching pitches from Joosr, Kadaxis, Novel Effect, Publishizer and Story Tourist. Not only were the ideas exciting and disruptive, but the founders were calm and clear whilst being grilled by the judging panel. I felt that many publishers would benefit from asking themselves similar questions about revenue models, target markets, success rates and traction.

Fundamentally, the future of the book and the publishing industry lies in having sustainable and growing businesses. Andrew Keen, in his closing keynote, spoke of how the digital revolution has decimated creative sectors like music, newspapers and photography. Publishing has survived this devastation and book sales are growing. However, he believes this is through luck rather than innovation.

Digital has created value for print, and publishers are in prime position to seize this opportunity. Keen said “What we will need in this new world of super intelligence is human talent, human ingenuity, human instinct. The demand for publishers and their ability to package this humanity into textual form will never be higher.”

Publishers can continue to create value by knowing what consumers want, and understanding people’s experience of books. Crystal Mahey-Morgan’s closing interview with Jamal Edwards MBE provided a great example of understanding users. Edwards’ book was aimed at a demographic that rarely reads, yet by releasing his book chapter by chapter over the summer holidays he was able to create not just a buzz but a bestseller by tapping into his audience’s needs.

And this is where the future of the book lies. Not in getting caught up in debates about print or ebooks, but in understanding when, how and where people want to read. This is the reason that the fastest growing digital content area for trade publishers has been audiobooks, because publishers are providing content to users in the format they want. It’s up to us as publishers of the future to build a workforce with the skills needed to understand and anticipate what readers want.