After a weekend to take stock, the first Futurebook Innovation Workshop, run in association with The Literary Platform, seems to boil down to an impression of ideas, enthusiasm, and a crowd of people learning from experience and feeding that back into the next wave of digital products.
Several themes kept cropping up, and publishers and developers shared with each other their lessons from hard-won experience. Penguin's Ruth Spencer and Stefanie Posavec presented the MyFry app, based on Stephen Fry's memoirs, and stressed the value of author support in a digital project. Support can come in different ways, of course. The colours of their innovative navigational tool, the wheel, were based on Fry's socks. Who knew.
Macmillan's marketing director Rebecca Ikin talked about the integrated sound-scape the publisher created, in collaboration with Nick Ryan of the Sound Consultancy, for Fall of Giants by Ken Follet, a project which began about 12 months ago. Whereas Penguin's Fry is a go-to digital bod, Follet is perhaps not the most obvious author to experiment on with digital additions, and the lesson from Ikin was: you don't know until you try, and in order to make a digital product work, you have to really think through what is suitable.
Ikin and Ryan were not the only collaborators to take to the stage, with Henry Volans from Faber and Max Whitby from Touch Press also stressing how important it is to find partners and work together as equals – witness The Waste Land app. Volans said he'd never witness such levels of free publicity before since launching the app, and revealed later in the pub™ that the app could earn out in as little as a month, based on early sales.
The team from developers ustwo, Matt Mills and Neil McFarland were a little - can I say? - cooler than the average publishing whizz. And they brought a breath of fresh air in the form of - shout it - sales information! The real deal, they brought "the beef", as Mills said. Their Fairytales Storytime app earnt them about £2,000 a day when it was at the top of the Apple app chart, and about £400 when it dropped down the leaderboard. Mills said that this meant those app publishers who were below his app on the chart were making significantly less money than might have been expected.
Mills told the conference that ustwo spent £60,000 making the app, and despite its "smash hit" success had recovered just £24,048 in revenue (so far). Not a massive money-spinner, then, but the exuberant pair still urged publishers to get their hands dirty; experiment now, go wild, and the results will ultimately come.
This sharing of stats fed back to that wider feeling of collaboration and openness, with John Mitchinson and Dan Kieran talking about their crowd-funding project, Unbound, a collaboration between that fundamental combo of author and reader. When asked if they were worried the sponsorship targets were not yet close to being met for the first round of author projects, Kieran's answer was a resounding no as, in his words, they "haven't started doing anything yet" – not in terms of targeted marketing, anyway.
This idea of marketing being key to the success of digital projects-providing the follow-through with readers that makes the development and innovation worthwhile-was stressed by Peter Collingridge as he hosted the closing panel.
He spoke candidly about the challenges he had had growing his own business Enhanced Editions: "We can admit that we have roundly failed to make a viable business out of that [developing enhanced content for publishers] and we've spent the last four to six months changing direction quite dramatically and starting to look quite closely at why that failed, and I think that the failures that we've had have been quite consistent to the failures that we've had previously to in a variety of publishing and marketing products, which is really that it is all very well creating sexy products but if you don't know how to take these to market then you're going to really struggle. We knew from our apps that people absolutely loved using them but we were reaching very small audiences."
He said that while publishers were getting better at creating digital products, they were still struggling to market them. "Promotion from Apple in the app store is a phenomenal way of driving sales but if you don't get that then how you get any kind of groundswell of sales is extremely challenging . . . I think publishers are very familiar with creating products, launching them into the market place and walking away, and that is not an approach that is going to create any kind of lasting value for publishers when it comes down to digital. I think there is also a great tendency within publishing, as there is within a lot of other industries, to simply partner up with people and outsource a lot of development, whereas I think as we have seen today the creation of new products and post book products is going to be a really vital part of publishing in the future."
So, to coin an oft repeated phrase, what were the key "learnings": keep innovating, and, though large material rewards are hard to come by, don't think of financial failure as purely part of the process; and collaborate – with authors, readers, developers, retailers – but don't sit back. Marketing the product, getting it to readers, is almost the hardest part – and surely publishers, with decades of experience in building up readerships, have the potential to hold the trump card here, not johnny-come-lately internet natives (fun though they are).