There may be continuing adaptation ahead

There may be continuing adaptation ahead

The publishing business is at the start of its digital revolution: the changes have already been profound and remarkable. Up to a point. The limits of this digital disturbance are as fascinating to me as they have become frustrating for others.

At FutureBook 2014, there seemed to me to be a distinct split between two different audiences. Those who believed in the world view, as expressed by Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon that publishing’s transition to digital had been secured; and those who sided with keynote speaker George Berkowski’s view that publishing has had its “head in the sand” and needs to look up and see what is happening across the entertainment sector, where Candy Crush is in competition with Fifty Shades.

In our conference feedback, this schism was also evident. The technologists wanted more of Berkowski, who was highly rated among the keynotes, and more of his type speaking the unspeakable, and shaking the unshakable. “Leading edge technologies: even the weird and wonderful!”, as one respondent noted. Yet others were for Weldon, who was seen as a voice of reason — a sort of Daniel among the lions, advocating for a meat-free diet.

One respondent captured the difference in the following terms: there are those for whom digital has enhanced traditional business models, and those for whom digital is an ever constant threat to these models. In other words, where Weldon sees continuing adaptation, Berkowski sees trouble ahead.

At the moment, the Weldonites are winning. Book publishing has adapted incredibly well to digital. Its businesses have grown; its authors have not jumped ship; it has not been forced to to adopt business models that it believes to be unsustainable; it has learned how to market on social media; it has adapted its pricing structures to the different formats, and via a return to agency among the big publishers has taken back control over the value of its products. For publishers digital has become both a new format to explore (and within which break new authors), and also a channel on which to grow sales (across all formats), interact with authors and talk to readers. Theirs is not a world where sales of Candy Crush are a consideration, or where the demise of the ISBN even registers as a topic — yet.

Furthermore, as my colleagues at The Bookseller noted during the various ‘reviews’ of 2014 published in January, the print market has also adapted, so that bookshops are filled with books where physicality still matters to the consumer - beautifully rendered debuts mixing it with gorgeous kids books such as Animalium. Through their developing consumer insight departments we will see more segmented publishing, as publishers work out the most favourable routes to the consumer for their titles.

Of course, the Berkowskians refuse to believe that the Weldonites have it right. As one respondent to our survey put it, when asked to articulate what they felt was weak about the conference, “People who just don’t get it. Worryingly that includes Tom Weldon who totally missed the mark during his interview. You need more digitally engaged CEOs to bang the drum for digital change not ones who talk about marketing and ownership of IP in such a traditional way.” [For other views on how publishing is getting it wrong see Twitter, or the comments under Mike Shatzkin's fine industry blog].

This binary depiction of the book sector may be misleading—and it clearly isn't helpful in terms of the wider health of the sector. Among the most highly rated sessions at FutureBook 2014 were the FutureBook Hack Pitches - a 10 minute slot at which teams who attended last year’s FutureBook Hack came to “big” FutureBook to pitch their ideas and showcase what they built in front of the larger audience. It was energetic, thoughtful, and collaborative. A nod to a different future that is less bish-bosh, more mash-up.

Even the "people who just don't get it" got it!