One of the best talks delivered at a FutureBook conference came right at its beginning in 2010. The author Nick Harkaway spoke about the possibilities opened up by digital and how quickly they might close down. “This is the narrow window of opportunity,” he said. “What we do now determines the habits people form and the way they think about digital for the rest of it. There’s a certain point where it is hard to change behaviour. We are in the window when we can now. If we goof now, we goof for a very long time.”
It was a good provocation, leading to the obvious question five years on - have we goofed?
Harkaway’s talk was memorable partly because it captured the mood so well. November 2010 felt like a simpler time. The publishing world was evolving quickly: Kindle was on the march into the UK, the iPad was shipping in heavy numbers ahead of Christmas, Sony was still in the game, and Kobo and Nook were hopeful start-ups. This was the conference where Touchpress’ Max Whitby showcased its app Elements for the iPad. Wrestling with his iPad so that its screen would be displayed by the projector, Whitby caught a different kind of mood: “Never work with technology”, he advised publishers.
It was a time to set forth, and a moment of great expectation.
Only a few months earlier The Bookseller had launched its digital community blog FutureBook, built to capture and reflect these changes. We set out the ambition in a “FutureBook Manifesto”: the book is not dead, we wrote, but it is changing. We wanted to show how publishing (and in particular European publishers) could take the lead: drive the future rather than be run-over by it. Alongside, the annual conference, there was the Census, regular meet-ups, the Innovation Workshop (run along with The Literary Platform), and most recently the FutureBook Hack.
Looking back at the early coverage in retrospect is somewhat galling: we did not yet know the full impact the Kindle would have; we expected the iPad to take a more serious role into how the e-book would evolve; we underplayed the importance of price; and we failed to recognise how authors would become a key part of the revolution. We spent an awful lot of time debating the efficacy of Digital Rights Management, the possible impact of piracy, the threat to copyright, and whether the enhanced e-book was ‘dead’.
Only slowly did any kind of understanding of the new markets emerge: we digitised and through that learned to pay attention to how books would convert to e; we re-learned how to market and publicise on digital networks, and what place websites could have in that; most importantly, we figured out how to synthesise digital with traditional publishing—those digital publishers, many of whom first came to prominence on the stage at FutureBook, were quickly assimilated into publishing.
And Harkaway had it right. The digital world we inhabit now is much more complex than it was then, the business models more established. But is there a sense of an opportunity missed? Not yet.
As I noted last week, the e-book has yet to go beyond its facsimile other self. Business models such as subscription continue to stutter and reform. Notions around how we mix digital with print wait to be explored, whether that is through bundling or interactive print books. Start-ups still arrive, and in some cases disrupt. The return of agency contracts, and the growth of digital only publishers shows that different publishing models can now prevail. Amazon sets the pace both as incumbent and disruptor that remains dizzying to many.
Part of the planning for FutureBook 2015 (4th December, The Mermaid) is to take this recent history of the book business and reflect on the job still to do. In 2013 and 2014 the conferences culminated in sessions around ‘big ideas’ where we invited participants to deliver a pitch in front of the industry audience. In 2013 agent Simon Trewin proposed a publishing ‘hack’, an event we put on six months later.
This year we are taking this up a notch: the industry is not short of ideas, but what makes sense now is to focus on those habits and to re-imagine them. To challenge the principles before they become too ingrained.
At FutureBook 2015, we will invite a range of participants to deliver a five-minute Manifesto for the Future of the Book Business. The Manifesto may address any area within the sector, but must set out a series of ideas, proposals and/or rules to help the business evolve digitally, or change a current direction. It should challenge conventions, and lock horns with received wisdom.
A Manifesto . . . for Publishers might, for example, question the necessity of publishing in all formats; a Manifesto . . . for E-books might define how an e-book can differentiate itself from other formats; a Manifesto . . . for Authors might look at how digital can be shifts power towards writers.
The floor is open. . . Your chance to tell it, how it should be.
Submissions, preferably no more than 500 words, should be sent to Porter.Anderson@theBookseller.com by 31st August. Selected contributions will be highlighted on FutureBook.net, with the best invited to address the FutureBook Conference on 4th December.