What is the book of the future? A conversation with futurist Tom Cheesewright

What is the book of the future? A conversation with futurist Tom Cheesewright

Tom Cheesewright is an applied futurist who works with organisations, brands and industries to help them see what’s coming and respond to fast-moving technological change. His fascination with the future started when his mum picked up a second-hand copy of the 1979 Usborne Book of the Future. I sat down with him  to ask what the future holds for books, publishers and people working in the sector. 

What does an applied futurist do?

An applied futurist can help you see what's coming, analyse that information, and act on it. I answer the question of what does our future look like and how do we respond? I help clients build organisations that are ready for the future, which means being adaptable and responding quickly to the challenges that the foresight’s thrown up. I do that through storytelling, because there’s no point having information if you can’t compel action from people by putting it into a narrative form.

How soon is the future? Tell us what timeframe you consider.

Most futurism historically has been focused on the 20 to 40-year timeframe but I was much more interested in the next five years. Things were changing quickly. There had been a lot of shocks, a lot of big brands had been swept away – much to their own surprise as much as anybody else’s. Clients were worried about what was going to take them out at the knees.

When you talk about organisations being taken down – are you saying that technology is a threat?

Technology is really just a mechanism for making change. So, if you’re going to look for major opportunities, it’s where technology and things technology does intersect with where you’ve already got pressure points in your organisation or your industry. Where those two intersect is where you see the greatest threats and opportunities.

It feels like change is accelerating, what are the challenges of this faster world?

Acceleration is happening in different places at different times so we need to qualify ‘accelerated change.’ Think back to the last century, historians will tell you that we had change of huge magnitude, equivalent to what we have now with the internet, with the shift from the horse and cart to the car, the advent of international travel, and domestic automation, which had a huge impact. The challenge it presents is what you do today may not be of value in a relatively short space of time. That’s true for both you as an individual, and you as an organisation.

So, what can organisations do to futureproof themselves?

Technology accelerates the need for strategic change. So, every organisation in every sector, has to start to understand how to adapt itself more quickly to what’s happening, and that comes down to organisation design, investment in innovation, and having a culture of experimentation. Technology creates huge diversity, it lowers the barrier to entry, so there’s always now opportunities for completely unexpected entries to come into markets, for new ways of doing things.

As an organisation you’ve got to watch out for these things and invest in them, otherwise, the people you’ve always been worried about, your direct competitors, or actually even more likely, someone from an adjacent industry, or even a completely orthogonal industry, could very quickly jump into your space and replicate what you do.

How does that affect publishing?

Technology doesn’t necessarily completely displace or destroy existing markets, it just creates new alternatives to them that are going to capture some of that previous pie. I think that’s been really clear in print media: magazines are struggling, while books have been relatively resilient in the face of what is apparently a medium that is exponentially cheaper, but the technology doesn’t destroy the existing one, it just creates new alternatives and new competition.

An alternative to the traditional books is the e-book, what impact has that technology had on publishing?

The e-book stats are completely wrong – they only take account of established publishers, so it’s measuring the wrong thing. As I say, technology breeds diversity, and that includes diversity of publishing models as well as diversity of formats. So, if you actually encompass all of the different publishing models for e-books now, their rise has been absolutely spectacular, and in sheer volume they’re absolutely dominating print books, they haven’t declined at all. What’s declined is the share of the e-book market that is owned by the major publishers.

If we’re all reading e-books, is there still a place for bookshops?

Machines remain really bad at giving us a good discovery experience. The most sophisticated engines of personalisation in the world are bad at finding us products that we don’t know we want. They’re good at helping us find things we absolutely know we want, and we know how to describe, but they’re terrible at finding us those serendipitous discoveries, and human beings remain much better at that. It’s why browsing a bookshop is so much a nicer experience if you don’t know what you want, than browsing an online store. There’s no serendipity online.

I’d like to talk about skills. How can we as individuals prepare for the future?

There are a huge number of roles which should have been eliminated already if we’d applied technology properly. We’re actually very bad at implementing the technology we have today, let alone implementing the technology we’re likely to have tomorrow! So, in some ways the potential effects are easier to forecast because you can see what could happen if people just apply what’s already available, and then you fast forward five years and you see the technology that’s either on the cusp of being introduced now, you start to see where that’s going to go.

On an individual level, you’ve got to be extraordinarily cognizant of that and know that whatever your skills are today, you may well have to adapt them, and retrain, and re-educate in order to find an economic role in a future society.

What skills will help publishers and those working in the industry to remain relevant? 

Storytelling’s a big part of it. If you can tell a story – visually, in writing or increasingly in code – then you can start to compel change. But before you get to that point you’ve got to be able to do two things. The first one is curation: the discovery and qualification of information. The second piece is creation, the ability to synthesise something new, whether that’s something entirely innovative through inventing, or iterative or recombinative innovation, taking your lessons from other places and applying them somewhere new.

Publishers need to communicate the value that they provide to users through creation and curation. They do this by building a lasting relationship with their customers and making sure that what they deliver their customers is not just what they expect, but something that surprises and entertains. All the things that publishers have always done, just they’re probably going to have to do it with a lower cost base than before.

Find out more about Tom Cheesewright and his writing, podcast, tools and courses at the Book of the Future