The fifth annual London Futurebook conference featured 47 speakers from the publishing industry and beyond. A pre-conference survey suggested only 1 in 7 publishing insiders thought the industry was ready for the next stage in the digital revolution. But the atmosphere was excitement, not anxiety.
Billed as Europe’s largest publishing conference it was certainly one of the most opinionated audiences I’ve encountered – by 5.30 pm the #futurebook14 hashtag was trending at #5 on Twitter.
So what generated the tweetfest? Here are 5 of my personal highlights
The 3 Holy C’s George Berkowski (serial entrepreneur, product developer for the taxi app Hailo and new launch, Ice Cream) had made waves pre-conference in an interview with the Bookseller where he asked how any industry paying £28k a year could expect to attract talent (software developers don’t get out of bed for £50k) – and also his skepticism over the publisher’s marketing efforts of his own book, How To Build a Billion Dollar App. His presentation was more conciliatory than many expected, focusing on the three ‘holy C’s, content (inspiration and information – which should be the industry’s bread and butter), Commerce (he’s staggered by the fact that publishers don’t own transactions but rely on third parties), and Community (we’ve always bought and read books on friends’ recommendation but publishers don’t exploit this enough).
Smart Creatives: In Bekowski’s view it’s the ‘smart creatives’ who’ll drive the industry forward – combining technical knowledge, business minds and creativity. Step forward the Editors: In a panel chaired by Michael Bhaskar, Harper Collins’s Kimberley Young described recruiting romance writers via a twitter shout out (I can only pity the person who had to read the 1000 submissions she got in in response) and hailed the new openness to experimentation – and the speed publishers could move (from acquisition to Amazon in 30 days). Not to be outdone Gollancz’s Darren Nash told a thrilling tale of The King in Yellow, the story unpinning the True Detective. Having discovered it trending via google trends three days before True Detective launched, they had their own e-book complete with extra content on sale to time with the first airing of True Detective. From concept to commerce in 45 hours.
Follow the audience: Carla Busazi (WGSN, formerly Huffpo UK) started her career at Marie-Claire – working with a group of digital elves up in the attic of the Conde Nast building because, you know, it was the print that made the money. Typically, the money has lagged behind the readers. Now that print magazine sales are falling off a cliff, the key challenge is to supply what people want, where they want it. Before long, people will read on google glass, even on watches (software will adapt to your reading speed to compensate for the small viewing space). ‘If you don’t cannibalise your own business, someone else will’ she says – a sobering thought.
Cosy up to the customer. Surprisingly to some people I talked to, Tom Weldon (CEO, Penguin Random House) said in an interview with The Bookseller’s Philip Jones that e-commerce wasn’t part of the company’s plans: he said that if companies like Google, Barnes & Noble, Tesco and Sainsbury’s were struggling to succeed in the e-book market, it would be arrogant to assume PRH could succeed. But customer insights can be gleaned in many other ways: BBC Worldwide’s David Boyle described how market research had shaped campaigns – and spend for music and TV – the budget for Eliza Doolittle’s first album increased once focus groups indicated a more mainstream appeal, and they launched a substantial Dr Who promotion in Korea once market research suggested the Koreans would be especially well-disposed. Penguin Random House’s Hannah Telfer (3 cheers for reminding us that 4 out of 5 UK bookbuyers live outside London!) stressed the need for data and rigour as opposed to ‘Anecdata’, citing the 3,500 strong readers’ panel and Young Hackney, a Hackney Youth Centre where PRH test apps and new launches. All very well, but what about publishers with smaller budgets? Pan Macmillan’s Sarah Lloyd cited examples that smaller companies could use – including free data sources such as facebook, email signups, google analytics as well as more formal (and expensive) research, which could be used at acquisition, in forming strategic partnerships (they discovered that Jane Green readers thought of spa breaks as their number one treat – leading to a promotional partnership) and in testing ideas on groups of readers.
Lesson from dog food: Running a book publicity agency, many of my clients are small independents. Heartening to hear Tumblr’s Rachel Fershleiser stress that the potential of the internet is ‘not how big it is, but how specific it is’. If she can find fellow lovers of home-cooked gourmet dog food on Tumblr, a small indy can surely be equally nimble in reaching its audience.
Final thoughts: This is just a small snapshot of the conference and some personal highlights. You can see the award winners here (can Nosy Crow do anything wrong).
Which just leaves money: Ultimately, we’re a business. Make money or we die. Some sobering money things that stuck in my mind:
Berkowski quoted the scary figure that 58% of US authors earn less than $1k per year – how are we going to incentivise them?
How to marry the amateurs (the Huffpost bloggers, the BookTubers) and the professionals (the hapless writers trying to earn a living and taking time to develop their craft)?
What happens to the losers in a much more customer-focussed world? David Boyle mentioned that some artists were simply dropped after marketing research – would we do that with authors if focus groups responded badly? And how would that affect a relationship business, long term?
One word I didn’t hear mentioned much this year was piracy. Strange, given that the Bookseller’s pre-conference survey showed that 1 in 7 publishing professionals had knowingly downloaded a pirated e-book. Hmmm…
Ruth Killick is Publicity Director at Ruth Killick Publicity, a UK-based books and arts publicity agency. www.ruthkillick.co.uk @rkbookpublicist