Don’t Delegate the Future: FutureBook event report

Friday’s FutureBook Conference, organised by The Bookseller, presented three conferences in one: alongside the main FutureBook programme, there were parallel streams on The Audiobook Revolution and EdTech for Publishers.

It was a seriously packed programme, and this in itself demonstrates that innovation in publishing can no longer be seen as the domain solely of the tech specialists: it’s something that affects us all. As Philip Jones writes in his introduction to the conference programme, half of the respondents to the FutureBook Census expect the book trade to be hit by another major disruption on the scale of the Kindle within the next five years. If you’re in this half, the best way to be prepared is to tune in to what the most innovative people in our industry are doing.

I can only cover a small portion of the event here, due to my inability to bi-locate and the amount of space in this article, so I’m going to focus on two topics: innovation as it applies to publishing today, and the growing audiobook market.

Innovation

Sara Lloyd, digital and communications director at Pan Macmillan, in conversation with co-founder of Wonderbly Asi Sharabi, argued that innovation isn’t a one-off project that you can do and then it’s finished. You have to keep iterating and changing. Her team treats innovation as something organic that isn’t reserved for particular job titles – everyone can contribute. Having said that, Lloyd observed that projects tend to be most effective when they are small and focused, saying that sometimes you have to be “a little undemocratic and quite ruthless” to innovate well.

An interesting point to come out of this conversation was the purpose of innovation. Sharabi made the case that innovation is essential if you want to stay relevant, because things around you will keep changing and you need to be ready for that. Wonderbly launches around six or seven new projects per year, and each one has a feature that’s innovative. Both speakers agreed that you can’t keep on refining your plan until it reaches perfection: you have to focus on action, viewing each project as a test, a chance to learn. Even if a project doesn’t result in profits right away (or ever), it will provide insights and data to inform your next steps.

This same theme of testing quickly was key to the ThinkSprint session, run by Scott Morrison and Sam Reid of ThinkSprint, and chaired by Nick Coveney, digital innovation and projects director at HarperCollins. Morrison and Reid define innovation as “invention multiplied by commercialisation”, and warned against being led solely by invention, citing as an example of this tendency a new Guinness app that will let drinkers know if they’ve been served the perfect pint – it’s a cool bit of technology, but bartenders won’t thank the app for all the returned pints it’s likely to generate.

They’ve taken the tech mantra “fail fast” and transformed it into “learn fast”, and they see Amazon as a great exemplar of this. (Love them or hate them, Amazon are relentless at trying out new models, rejecting the ones that flop and developing the ones that work.) In this session we had the chance to see how three real publishing questions were analysed and tested by their panel of experts, who identified potential “banana skins” and came up with suggestions for moving forward. The timescale for both the research and the presentation was very compressed, but the idea of throwing an idea out to the crowd, getting quick feedback, responding and beginning the cycle again was compelling.

Audiobooks

The sessions on audiobooks were very well attended, and as a new audiobook commissioner myself, I was particularly interested to learn more about developments in this area. One thing that really came across is how young and in flux this medium is: yes, of course audiobooks have been around for decades, but with the recent boom in popularity, everyone suddenly has a stake in the audio market – and conflicting opinions abound.

One issue on which all speakers agreed is that the reader is as vital to an audiobook’s success as the author. Jennifer McMenemy, marketing manager at Orion Books, highlighted the loyalty that many listeners have to their favourite readers, a point which was echoed by Sarah Shrubb, audio publisher at Hachette Audio. Choose the wrong reader and you risk getting negative feedback and early returns from library users; but the right reader will attract a committed following.

A frequent point of difference was the question of whether an audiobook is simply “another form of the book”, or another product altogether. Paul Martinovic, non-fiction communications manager at Pan Macmillan, described research which found that a large proportion of heavy audiobook listeners actually prefer print books as a medium. For these listeners, audiobooks solve a problem, by providing a way to absorb content while doing other tasks where reading is impossible, but they’re not seen as being better than a print book. In contrast, Ravina Bajwa, senior commissioning editor at Pottermore, described how the Harry Potter audiobooks are new soundworlds, taking listeners far beyond the written text, and standing as artworks in the own right. Sam Halstead, senior commissioning editor at Penguin, told us about the recording of Eddie Izzard’s autobiography: apparently he spun off into so many tangents and asides during the recording that the audiobook is quite different from its text-based forms.

This tension in the floating definition of an audiobook’s IP was most pronounced in the session on audiobook rights. Agent Alice Lutyens of Curtis Brown argued strongly that the audience, production methods and distributions channels for audiobooks are so distinct from those of print and ebooks that their rights should be sold separately: publishers should not assume that when acquiring the written form of a book they should automatically be granted the audiobook rights too. It’s clear this debate is going to run and run – and that this is a very interesting time to be working with audiobooks.

For more details about the programme, visit https://www.thebookseller.com/futurebook-conference, and you can follow tweets from the day at #FutureBook 17.

Abbie Headon runs Abbie Headon Publishing Services, and offers a range of skills including writing, editing and commissioning, alongside social media, website development and publishing management. She champions fresh approaches to solving the industry’s challenges and can be found mingling at most publishing events. Abbie’s also on the BookMachine Editorial Board

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