I would like to say that I walked away from last week’s FutureBook conference filled with the confidence that, as Dominique Racca of Sourcebooks believes, 2012 is going to be the most important year for publishers, or that we will find that extra 20% of the day we lost down the back of the couch sometime last century and put it to use imagining and innovating like Stephen Page of Faber says we should, but unfortunately the resounding echo in my mind is neither of these brilliant voices. Instead, what has stuck with me more than anything is the sound of one voice in the audience braying into the microphone:
‘Do people edit anymore? Are there still… editors?’
I think if I’d had a drink in my hand at that exact moment, I probably would have bitten into my glass, as it would have been easier to swallow.
As it was, we all laughed awkwardly, bitterly, wishing a swift slap would be delivered from on high to the speaker’s smug face. Using one group of badly-formatted eBooks as the basis for questioning the work of many is like seeing a burnt-out building and sarcastically assuming that fire fighters are lazy – it’s personally offensive to everyone in the industry and shows no appreciation of the disgustingly hard work put into the creation and sale of a single book.
But that question begs better question: how well are publishing houses expressing themselves outside the books they produce?
This is something Charlie Redmayne was well equipped to discuss as CEO of the long-awaited, not-quite-yet-surfaced Pottermore – an entire community built on a single author’s brand. He spoke eloquently of the value in long-term marketing drives and brand relationships rather than two-week pushes before release of a key title.
The sentiment was touched upon earlier in the day by Jenny Todd of Canongate though under the guise of discoverability: ‘make content meaningful.’ She used the example of Noel Fielding and the videos they released of him working on his art to show how in some cases the process of creation is just as valuable to a reader as the end product, and their relationship with a title can go beyond simply reading the text.
Of course, not every publishing house limits themselves to a specific genre, or a specific market, which makes the definition of their brand difficult. Equally not every author is a J K Rowling or the star of a television show. But the key point remains: we are no longer producing materials just for trade, but also for a reachable, present and hopefully engaged audience, who will listen if you speak and put words in your mouth if you don’t.
It’s very little wonder we’re so self-deprecating when we are in the business of communication and yet have retailers who are able to outdo us not only on price but also emotive language. Even if 2012 isn’t the most important year for publishers, after the FutureBook conference we can hope it might be the one where we find our voices.