If you want to hear a futurologist quote a surprisologist, if you want to see a firestarter shudder at the phrase ‘choose your own adventure,’ if you want to see a marketing guru on a video screen talking ‘smallest viable audience’ to a room full of 500 publishers, this year’s FutureBook Live offered all this and more.
But what do readers want? The question for me by the end of the day was: how should publishers use new and emerging tech - if at all? Are our customers ready for immersive digital story worlds - or do they just want to sit down and read a book?
Digital offers new ways of storytelling - but are people ready for it?
The conference opened with a warning from Molly Flatt about the real disruption coming our way: people who just don’t care any more. In a world where reading competes for attention with other forms of entertainment, how do we make people care about what we do?
The FutureBook look to the future included insights into emerging tech: AI, VR, augmented reality, haptics, 3D spatial audio and more. This blue sky - not to say Black Mirror - thinking ranged from the useful (avatars) to the downright creepy (Japanese virtual girlfriends and AI chatbots from beyond the grave). Keynote speaker Muki Kulhan acknowledged that we need to find the right balance between technology and humanity.
Creepy tech also crept into a panel session called New Platforms, New Ways of Storytelling. Tom Abba, associate professor of art and design at UWE, has been working on a project that delivers a ghost story to your smartphone. Your phone knows where you are, what time of day it is, what the weather is like - and this data can be used to personalise a story. This illustrates a new form of storytelling that’s possible with tech already integrated into our lives.
Latitude did some research into the future of storytelling in 2012. Six years on, the tech is here and people are launching these kinds of products. Panel chair Sara Lloyd asked: “But are consumers coming to the party? Is there a need for it - and will people pay for it?” Abba argued that consumers don’t know what they want. “Did TS Eliot write the Wasteland thinking of the consumer?” he asked. “It would worry me if we produced things driven by the data.”
New Platforms, New Ways of Storytelling
Ian Forrester, senior R&D firestarter at BBC North lab, said: “It’s a story world, and the story is the narrative path you take though it.” For him, different formats - audio, video, VR, AR, book – are all part of the same ecosystem. “What we’re talking about is integration of form and content with the reader at the centre of it,” said Lloyd. “Are the platforms allowing us to do this? And will books one day just be the merch for digitally created story worlds?”
Is publisher curation or reader data analytics the best way to commission books?
I was a commissioning editor for many years, when the world was analogue. Today, could this role be outsourced to an algorithm? At a panel session called Audience Matters: What Readers Really Want, Inkitt founder Ali Albaaz explained how they discover writers and turn them into successful authors. They make manuscripts free to read to thousands of users, analyse the stats and reading behaviour, and offer the successful authors publishing contracts. It clearly works: of 50 books published, 46 became bestsellers. Publishing by algorithm may seem soulless - but is it really any different to test screening films or crowdsourcing beta readers? Or even traditional publishers ‘talent spotting’ successful self-published authors?
Audience Matters: What Readers Really Want
At the other end of the stage, and the spectrum, were Lindsey Mooney and Keshini Naidoo of Hera Books, an indie digital-first publisher who can be quick-to-market with new books. As a small, new enterprise, the books they publish are the ones they feel passionate enough about to be able to sell. Mooney previously worked at Kobo, and spent ages with data. She knew when people were reading, how long for, and when they stopped. Now she’s a publisher, “It’s not what we do. It’s more ‘I love that book – I stayed up all night to finish it – we have to publish it.’”
While Inkitt’s approach is driven by the reader, and Hera’s is curated by the publisher, both want to put out books that people want to read. And using data and feedback to shape and improve a creative product - whether a book or a film - seems a useful approach that also preserves authorial vision and creativity.
How do we cut through the noise? Is podcasting the future?
One of the highlights of the day for me was a podcast symposium, chaired by Clarissa Pabi, producer of the Mostly Lit podcast - which won the FutureBook Best Podcast award later in the day - and featuring the people behind some of the best books podcasts today: Alex Reads (also Mostly Lit), Octavia Bright (Literary Friction), Leena Normington (Banging Book Club / Vintage Podcast / I’m Not Being Funny But), Jake Harris (Story Shed) and Mark Stay (The Bestseller Experiment).
Podcasting has had a resurgence in recent years. It is an intimate, authentic, trusted medium - and one that sell books. Leena Normington did a survey of 4,000 Instagram followers, and found that 87% said they had bought a book because she had recommended it. She said: “As publishers, we spend lots of time and money getting bums on seats - sending authors to literary festivals and so on – so if you can guarantee that thousands of people will turn up to listen to an author every week, for free – why would you not do that?” Octavia Bright added that it’s less pressure for authors too, compared with live events.
Podcasting may not be a new technology - but it’s current popularity is new, and this might be an indicator of how long emerging tech needs to become mainstream. If we’re looking for tech tools to reach readers for our books (rather than create immersive digital story worlds), then podcasting is a good place to be at the moment.
What does the future hold?
Hachette CEO David Shelley reflected on his 20 years in publishing in his morning keynote. He said: “Today tech makes it easier to publish books - including as an indie publisher or a self-publisher - and to reach readers. And there are more options for authors than there ever have been before.”
We have access to more data and tech than ever before. But what matters is how we use it, the stories we tell, and who we tell them to. Everything else is just infrastructure.
The day ended on a high, as Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher at Dialogue Books, accepted her award for FutureBook Person of the Year. She said: “For me, the future centres on amazing books and stories. Let’s make stories by everyone for everyone the norm and not a trend.”
Jon Reed is running a one-day conference on How to Get Published on Saturday 9th February 2019 at Foyles in London.