In one of my first Frankfurt Book Fairs, I remember my news editor asking me to head to Hall 4 and “find out what the French think”. Not only was my French too limited for this kind of task, and my directional antennae less attuned to the realities of navigating around the halls than they have since become, but the sheer impossibility of finding that someone who could sum up a whole nation’s thoughts on publishing in a series of sound-bites eluded me then, as it still would today. If that person ever existed, then I’m sorry to have missed them.
Taking a measure of digital during Frankfurt is similarly challenging. Almost everyone I spoke to remarked on a shift, but no-one could quite define what had happened. One executive called it “interestingly quiet”, another suggested that the voices shouting at publishing had simply stopped coming to Frankfurt, preferring now to shout on social media. And of course there is the plateau, about which some dare not speak, and that question of when other sectors such as non-fiction and children's will have their digital day. In my Leader for The Bookseller last week, I remarked that at Frankfurt the biggest news is still around the books and the rights deals—and that anything getting in the way of that, needs to be really big. And in fact many of the digital companies that once bestrode the fair seem much more circumspect. I was impressed with the Google Play stand, Nook’s endurance, and the confidence of the still big Kobo presence. Amazon executives were also out in force, but none in public view. But this is all a far cry to how it used to be, when digital would set the agenda. Of course Amazon is still capable of doing that, it just doesn't do it at Frankfurt.
The most tangible manifestation of this shift has been around the conferences. This was a second year without Frankfurt’s Tools of Change, and a first year without Publishers Launch. I missed both. TOC provided the digital razzmatazz, and I think it genuinely helped to transition the business during a time when everyone was digitally nervous. The fact that it took place before the Fair, and away from the Halls (the Marriott Hotel) gave it an edge and a sense of perspective that felt very necessary. Publishers Launch, a more recent addition to the show, provided the depth, and the analytical focus that the two Michaels (Cader and Shatzkin) are well-known for. Frankfurt’s replacement digital show Contec, and its developing Business Club activities, signal a change in gear. It felt more European, and more indigenous in its focus and programming. Fine for Frankfurt's core audience, but I suspect less useful for some, and certainly less lively for journalists. If TOC was like staring at the sun—harsh, troubling and headache-inducing; by contrast Contec was like sitting by the shore—comforting, relaxed, and a bit too gentle.
What this really tells me is that we are at that interesting point in this digital transition when different bits of the sector are moving at different speeds, but the one common factor is that we have all become participants rather than watchers. The being dazzled bit looks to have gone. It will be replaced by hard work, and real difficult stuff, and not all of this will play out in a public space, as it once did.
Over the years that we have run the annual FutureBook Conference, we have seen a similar transition. In the early days, we might have asked speakers for a blue-sky overview of what publishing SHOULD do, and often these talks were fun and insightful, but many were based on predictions about what may come to pass based on experiences from different media sectors. We are no longer in that situation. As Tim O’Reilly put it when he shuttered TOC a couple of year ago: “Seven years on, ‘digital publishing’ is well on its way to simply being ‘publishing,’ and options for both publishers and readers continue to evolve and expand. Publishers are significantly more change-hardy than they were in 2006.”
This makes FutureBook tougher to programme, and yet at the same time of increasing importance to the sector. The speakers we have lined up for FutureBook 2014 not only have experience from outside the publishing world (Tumblr, Hailo), but they also have direct experience of working with publishers and book content. What was talked about hypothetically just a few years ago, has become real opportunity and real business, as the evolution of YouTube’s book activities, and Scribd subscriptions deals, demonstrate.
These incomers will be joined by executives from within publishing who have been leading this shift (Penguin Random House’s chief executive Tom Weldon, for example, among others). As Unbound’s Dan Kieran has put it, publishing is best served by people with “domain knowledge”. It remains an incredibly difficult business to disrupt from the outside. Publishers once feared they would be by-standers in this shift, but now they feel in the vanguard.
The developing themes this year are around what publishing has become; what business models are working; what the new channels are and how we push these sales mechanisms; and perhaps most importantly who the publishing executives of tomorrow are, the Rising Stars, as we call them. We will also have sessions coming out of the FutureBook Hack, which took place during the summer, and a return of the ‘Big Ideas’ panel.
For years we’ve talked about FutureBook as the ‘publishing conference’, and it feels to me that finally we are there. Digital strategy has become publishing strategy, as Faber’s Henry Volans remarked last week. We are taking what we’ve learned from other digital conferences, and what we saw this year at Frankfurt, and making sure the conference reflects not just an image of publishing as it is now, but one that we can project into the near-future.
I’ve never known such an interesting time in publishing. But it's tougher to call than it ever has been. There is not a publishing or bookselling business that is not in flux—from PRH to Faber to HarperCollins to Kobo to Amazon—and yet no real sense of panic any more, just a determination to progress. And if things really are a touch too “quiet” as many suspect, FutureBook will be the time when we turn up the volume again.