How to win at publishing now: 10 tips from the FutureBook Awards

How to win at publishing now: 10 tips from the FutureBook Awards

Digital has already transformed every area of the publishing industry - but we're only just getting started. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution of wearable and connected devices, there will be countless more opportunities for us to adapt and evolve. However, that will require every one of us to understand the tech, build a culture that embraces digital ways of working, and boost our skills as individuals - a far from easy task.

Thankfully, there is a vanguard of inspiring people already embodying what great digital leadership looks like in publishing - and several of them featured in this year's FutureBook Awards. So what advice would those winners and runners-up give to someone hoping to become the next leading light in digital publishing?

Sara Llyod receives FutureBook's 2016 Digital Leader of the Year Award

“The primary purpose of a digital role, just as much as any other role in publishing, is the generation of new excitement and interest in books, reading and stories,” says Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director for Pan Macmillan, and FutureBook's 2016 Digital Leader of the Year. 

Lloyd was named Digital Leader for her strategic, operational and leadership role at Pan Macmillan and for her influence across the sector. Earlier in 2016 at the Bookseller Marketing and Publicity conference, she argued that the digital revolution is not over, and she has campaigned for many years for publishers to embrace change and work against complacency. In 2008 she wrote 'A Book Publisher's Manifesto for the Twenty First Century' which set out her vision for how the publishing industry should respond to the digital changes that were then yet to come – it still holds a great deal of relevance today.

“I'm really focused on keeping people reading, sharing and talking about books," she continues. "And making sure they do that using whichever technology, platform, channel or media they want. Care less about the tech and more about whether you're making a difference to the way people encounter your stuff and how much they get out of it.”

Jenny Ridout, global head of academic publishing for Bloomsbury and FutureBook's 2016 Digital Achiever, believes that If you work in publishing you’re already on the way to building your digital skillset. “The core market-driven publishing principles of right product, right place, right time and the editorial values of quality and selection are all transferable, it’s the tools of delivery and attendant business models that change," she explains.

Jenny Ridout receives the Digital Achiever Award

Ridout built her digital skills through “sheer hands on experience” while project director for Drama Online – an early flagship digital product for Bloomsbury, which has won industry and academic acclaim for innovation. She got to grips with a wide variety of technology from web development and user experience to streaming media and, in those early days, felt there was a real pioneering spirit in the industry.

Companies need to be brave, says Ridout, “Then once you have developed pockets of innovation and experience within the business, focus on knowledge sharing, lessons learned, scale and efficiency.” Communicating successes will help generate engagement with digital and create an environment where staff are keen to develop their skills, and Ridout urges people to roll their sleeves up and get to grips with technology. “You are more equipped than you think you are!”

Having a supportive culture will make it easier for people to build skills, but Emma Barnes, the c.e.o of Bibliocloud who washighly commended for the Digital Leader Award, says that “there’s no replacement for graft." Barnes took a free coding course in 2011 while on benefits and bootstrapping independent publisher Snowbooks where she commissions, edits, typesets and designs books. She created Bibliocloud to handle metadata distribution and automate much of the manual graft in the Snowbooks’ workflow. In solving the problem for herself, she realised it could help other publishers, and now leads a team of staff who work with 30+ clients across the sector.

Emma Barnes, Highly Commended Digital Leader and Bec Evans, Highly Commended Digital Achiever

Taking the journey from ‘full stack publisher” to “full stack programmer” impassioned Barnes with a mission to encourage other people, particularly women, to code. "If you want to be able to write code, and write it well, you need to give yourself five good years, and you need to stick at it," she says. "Programming is not a trivial endeavour. The good thing is that if you start it, and you like it, it will be no hardship at all to put that effort in. It’s the most addictive, most rewarding, most compelling endeavour I’ve ever found.”

The FutureBook Award winners are a diverse bunch, but the one thing they share is a passion for helping others learn. Here are their ten top tips for building your own digital toolkit and helping your company strive for digital excellence.

1. Focus on your customer

Ridout: “Always start with the customer and how their content needs are changing.”

2. Make engaging content that meets customer needs

Lloyd: “It has to grab them in the first couple of seconds, and it has to either answer a genuine need or be extremely funny, newsworthy or charming for them to take any notice.”

3. Be open to new opportunities from other people and sectors

Lloyd: “Keep yourself outwardly focused, curious and try to 'notice' things going on in the world around you and wonder how they might be relevant to books and reading.”

4. Consider learning to code

Barnes: “Just start, and see if you like it. I’d heartily recommend Michael Hartl’s Learn Enough to be Dangerous series. To write and publish software you do need a laptop and the internet, but you don’t need a server, an office or even a fancy training course. Try for free.”

5. Have the freedom to experiment and space for new ideas

Lloyd: “At Pan Macmillan I've encouraged in my teams a structure for thinking about innovation using a 'lean canvas' approach and short runs of development, piloting, testing and pivoting based on feedback. It's a cliché but the fail fast, fail well maxim is a great one to remember."

6. Have a clear objective and purpose to go digital

Lloyd: “It's really important that digital never be used simply to tick a box or for its own sake. Be relentless about results – to do this you need to have clear objectives to start with.”

7. Plan your projects but be flexible – prepare for the goal posts to move

Ridout: “For a largescale online project – have a strong forward vision and a roadmap for how the project will scale over time.”

8. Invest in user research and UX so your product is easy to use

Ridout: “User experience experts are worth their weight in gold. Their design input can make a real difference to successful products that are repeatedly used and bookmarked and those that are visited once.”

9. Get support from a group or mentor

Barnes: “There’s no shortage of help to learn to code. There is a genuine desire from many programmers I know to help other people get started and improve.”

10. Know your limitations – partner with experts

Ridout: “Constant change and reinvestment can be a big financial undertaking for some companies which is why partnering with others is often the way forward.”

You can find more details about all the FutureBook16 award winners here.