This year’s FutureBook 2017 conference brought together innovators from across the industry and beyond to share their insights and perspectives on the changing publishing landscape. With topics ranging from data, tech, and artificial intelligence to demographics, business models, and opportunities for collaboration, the event left attendees with plenty to think about. Here, journalist and PhD student Alastair Horne shares his five key takeaways.
1. Content marketing offers publishers new ways to build on their strengths
The day’s second speaker, Vikki Chowney, chief content strategist at Hill+Knowlton, offered a radical new business opportunity for the industry. Reminding the audience that content marketing – a still-growing phenomenon – centres upon telling stories, she suggested that publishers might take advantage of their strength in that area to develop new revenue streams, by either partnering with existing agencies or creating their own departments to develop content for brands.
2. Solve your customers’ problems to solve your own
A highlight of the following session, a conversation between Pan Macmillan digital and communications director Sara Lloyd and Wonderbly founder Asi Sharabi, came when Lloyd shared an innovative solution to the problem of getting useful data from attendees at the 700-plus live events run by the publisher each year. Taking advantage of the fact that people have to wait in queues at such events to get their books signed, Macmillan decided to serve them drinks as they waited, with questions written on the cups, which they gathered at the end of the event. By solving a problem for their customers – what to do while waiting – they were able to solve their own problem as a business.
3. Book-buying’s getting more global; publishers must too
The morning’s final keynote saw Chantal Restivo-Alessi, chief digital officer at HarperCollins, propound a ‘whole-world approach’, in her talk on ‘Where digital and global publishing meet’. Publishing’s historical territorial splits are increasingly being challenged by developments such as the worldwide popularity of social media and the launch of Amazon Global - the retailer’s new international shipping programme - making a global approach more important than ever. Restivo-Alessi shared some initiatives that have enabled HarperCollins to work efficiently within this world: Harper360, which has for more than 25 years enabled the publisher to make its English-language titles available in all its English-language markets, while its English Language Coordination programme offers its offices around the world a central system for sharing PR and marketing plans and materials, lightening the promotional burden on both local marketing teams and authors.
4. Hardbacks aren’t helping
A breakout session on helping authors reach more readers offered a couple of valuable insights into the unintended consequences of publishing’s two-tier business model, which sees expensive hardback editions published six months to a year before more affordable paperback versions. Nick Barreto, technology director at ebook publisher Canelo, pointed out that this approach harms the industry’s attempts to reach readers who can’t afford hardbacks, since it tells them that books aren’t intended for the likes of them. Nicola Solomon, c.e.o. of the Society of Authors, raised an additional problem caused by this model: that most media attention, in the form of reviews, occurs when books are too expensive for many to buy; by the time the paperback comes out, the buzz – along with potential extra sales – has gone.
5. Libraries mustn’t go the way of Alexandria
For an institution that’s been around since at least the third century B.C., the library still has a key role to play in the future of publishing. It kept sneaking into discussions throughout the day: author Jeff Norton, in answer to a question on whether a Netflix for books might ever work, reminded the audience of the persistent value of libraries as the original great subscription offer, while Nicola Solomon stressed the role libraries play in creating reading habits in the young, describing the current decline in UK libraries as a ‘disgrace’. Rebecca Herman of audiobook publisher Bolinda encouraged her audience to get a library card, before Jamie Byng of Canongate brought the thread to a moving conclusion with a video from Letters Live, in which Toby Jones read a letter from E. B. White to the children of Troy, Michigan, about the importance of libraries, illustrated by Chris Riddell. You can read the letter here.