What is book innovation in 2018, anyway?

What is book innovation in 2018, anyway?

What does innovation even mean in the book trade nowadays?

As someone who has just finished programming this year's FutureBook Live conference (with dedicated audio, edtech and play streams, 65 speakers, five keynotes, 10 mini-keynotes, nine panels, five awards, two live pitch-offs, two workshops, one podcast symposium and one short-story competition - oh, and a tiny, insignificant bit of help from my colleages), you'd think I'd have something approaching an answer.

Not a chance.

You see, we're publishing/writing/agenting/marketing/bookselling in rather strange times. Eight years ago, when the FutureBook conference was first launched by the brilliant and irrepressible Sam Missingham, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. No-one doubted that the 'digital revolution' was going to tip the book industry on its head. New departments were formed. All kinds of weird and wonderful e-experiments proliferated. An army of amazing-sounding apps marched forth.  

Then disillusion set in. The experiments, more often than not, failed - or only turned out to appeal to a very niche few. Most of the startups folded. Digital became an environment that everyone needed to learn how to swim in, not a sexy new specialism. Departments either dissolved or became strangely siloed. And print sales rallied, leading many to conclude (in private, at least) 'why take a punt on risky new fixes if we ain't broke?'

It's an understandable reaction; a timely push-back against expensively irrelevant innovation for innovation's sake. By now we've learnt that the future isn't going to simply roll in on a shiny tech bandwagon (although FutureBook Live will certainly showcase what can be done with the latest VR, AR, AI, the blockchain and the rest). However, complacency at this point is utter madness. There's plenty more disruption on the way, from the rise of ever-smarter algorithms to the changing brains of a generation brought up to scroll. 

So what does truly helpful, meaningful, impactful innovation look like now?

I think, probably, it means something much more mundane and difficult to define than the big splashy projects of yore (although those are always fun to watch). I think it looks like publishing people examining every tiny element of book-making, spreading and selling, and asking: How can we use everything we now have at our disposal (from tech platforms to the real world, from online data to neuroscientific insights into human nature) to:

  • Make this easier and quicker for our customers (readers/authors/colleagues)?
  • Make this more compelling than watching Netflix (browsing IG/playing mobile games)?
  • Use this to attract new audiences (generations/demographics/passion groups)?
  • Be more aligned with our values as a company (sustainability/diversity/freedom of speech)?
  • Make more money out of this?

Not: how can we do something new, or can we win an innovation award, or can we get a bunch of short-lived trade PR, but: how can we make this process or service or book or contract better tomorrow than it is today?

That might involve some pioneering piece of technology, but it might not. It might involve a huge overhaul, but it's more likely to require a small, smart hack. It might be achievable using skills and perspectives already present in your company, but it may well require you to reach out to an expert outsider, or create a mutually-beneficial cross-industry partnership.

What it definitely will involve is a willingness from book people to do three things, every day: to be uncomfortably honest (about how well their part of the process is working); to source some data (about how their part of the process is being perceived, and what its intended audience really wants); and to relentlessly invest in improving it (sometimes in time more than money, but then time is the most precious resource of all). 

Or, at least, that's my best guess about what innovation in books means in 2018.

What's yours? Tell me @TheFutureBook #FutureBook18.

FutureBook Live takes place on 30th November in London, at 155 Bishopsgate. The full programme can be accessed here, and tickets can be bought here.