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 BookMachine’s Commissioning Editor and sits on the BookMachine Editorial Board.
If you’ve read Matt Haslum’s preview article about this year’s Quantum Conference, held in London’s Olympia on 9 April 2018, you’ll know that the focus of the conference as a whole was ‘Inspiration informed by data’. And if you’ve worked in publishing, you’ll know that basing actions on data is by no means the norm. We tend to prefer hunches and ‘how we’ve always done things’ in our industry – so Quantum came as a pleasing contrast, being packed as it was with more numbers than I’ll be able to squeeze into this overview of the day.
In his opening keynote, Tom Goodwin of Zenith Media reminded us that although change seems to be happening tremendously quickly, with trends like loom bands and fidget spinners arriving and disappearing faster than we can keep up with, the ways that we use technology actually move much more slowly. He described four ways that change is affecting the world of storytelling:
- The concept of ‘being online’ is becoming irrelevant. Older people will talk about going ‘to’ the internet, while young people spend their whole lives with it as a daily presence.
- Screens are everywhere, providing us with so much information that our ability to use our imaginations is reduced. Books could represent a return to ‘calm media’ and a respite from screen overload.
- Creativity has become more democratic, with everyone able to produce their own content. This creates a need for curation, and as publishers we need to keep up with these new business dynamics.
- Lines between formats are becoming blurred: TV episodes can be as long as films, radio shows can be distributed as podcasts, and so on. We are no longer in the book business but in the quality attention
David Shelley, CEO of Hachette, continued the conversation about change in a discussion with Jo Henry of BookBrunch. In his view, the boom in audiobooks is not a blip: audio will keep growing and will be central to the industry in 5-6 years’ time. Meanwhile, print books are set to flourish thanks to younger millennials, who appreciate their solidity in ‘a kind of retro-nostalgic way’. Older readers continue to be enthusiastic about ebooks, but Shelley has not found that consumers are demanding greater interactivity from their ebooks.
The discussion moved to the gender pay gap and the importance of taking an intersectional approach to inequalities. Shelley recommended unconscious bias training for anyone who hasn’t done it, ‘because if you’re aware of it, you can do something about it’.
Abigail Bergstrom of Gleam Futures took us on a journey of ‘Deconstructing the new digital talent’ in conversation with King’s Road Publishing’s Ben Dunn. She acknowledged that simply having a large following on YouTube does not guarantee that a vlogger’s books will become bestsellers; what’s most important is not the number of followers, but their level of engagement. It’s also very important that publishers don’t focus solely on a social media star’s current output and audience, but use these as a springboard to reach new audiences, with content that adds to what’s already available for free online.
A panel on ‘Discoverability, superabundance and how to rise to the fore’ covered the risks and potential benefits of working in a market that is utterly saturated in content. Georgina Atwell of Toppsta compared our industry’s ever-increasing output of books to a supermarket with thousands of different breakfast cereals. We would walk out of such a baffling shopping situation – and yet, as publishers, we expect consumers to be able to cope with the mind-boggling choice of books that faces them. Our job, then, is to curate what we provide. Canelo’s Michael Bhaskar, an expert on curation, said that as well as using ‘push publishing’ techniques such as BookBub promotions to make ourselves heard, we can also use ‘pull publishing’, by creating effective metadata and building communities around a tightly-focused genre type. Traditionally, publishing has tended to see its authors as its brands, but we’re now starting to see a greater focus on the branding of lists, as part of this strategy of ‘pulling’ readers into a purchasing feedback loop. Alex Reads, one of the hosts of the podcast Mostly Lit, described how his audience is influenced by the podcast’s recommendations: their listeners, who are largely female and in the BAME community, tend to purchase online, with a preference for ebooks and audiobooks over print, and they also reach out directly to the podcast presenters for specific recommendations. Podcasts such as Mostly Lit are clearly powerful tools in the task of identifying what to read next, amidst the unstoppable deluge of new content we’re all producing.
The entire focus of the afternoon was on publishing’s most vibrant growth area: audiobooks. Michele Cobb of the Audio Publishers Association illustrated the rapid expansion of the US audiobook market over the past five years, and Nielsen’s Oliver Beldham provided similarly impressive statistics for the UK.
This was followed by a session on ‘Creating compelling audiobooks’, chaired by actor Nick Briggs of The Big Finish. Debra Deyan, Deyan Audio, described some of the challenges audiobook narrators face: a story might take place in a single day or over a hundred years; it might require one accent, or sixty; and the writing has to be top-notch for an actor to give their best performance. Macmillan’s Mary Beth Roche pointed out that as the output of audiobooks increases, it’s vital that quality standards remain high; otherwise we risk putting new listeners off the medium before they’ve had a chance to become audiobook fans. Javier Celaya of Dosdoce highlighted the importance of choosing the correct voice for your audience: for example, a Spanish-language book will need a separate narration for Latin American listeners, as well as the edition for listeners in Spain.
A panel chaired by Caroline Raphael of Dora Productions took us on a tour of the current and future applications of tech-enabled audio, with smart speakers set to play an ever-growing role in our daily lives. Google Play’s Florian Pagès gave one arresting example of the way smart speakers are changing our interactions, with many parents admitting that they use their Google Play to read bedtime stories to their children.
The final session of the conference brought us closer to the creative talent behind our audiobooks, as actor Adjoa Andoh discussed the challenges of narrating international writing with fellow actor Lorelei King. Andoh’s first audiobook recording was The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and she has since gone on to record the rest of this series, along with numerous other titles in a huge range of styles. After listening to a programme packed with statistics and case studies, it was refreshing and inspiring to hear insights from the people whose talents bring audiobooks to life. Andoh described narrating a book as an intimate experience between her mouth and the listener’s ear; it’s vital to stay as close to the story as she can, in order to keep the authenticity of the story alive, because listeners can tell when a narrator’s heart isn’t quite in it. Both King and Andoh agreed that a good brief and a connection to the author are essential for them to be able to do a good job, and to save time in the recording studio: just querying the pronunciation of a single word can waste twenty valuable minutes of studio time.
For me, the most compelling moment of this session, and indeed of the entire day, was when Andoh spoke of her motivation for acting, which is to find and convey the humanity of the stories she tells. As she said, ‘The more we get lost in each other’s humanity, the more we’re likely to love each other and not kill each other.’ I can’t think of a more powerful argument for the telling and sharing of stories. It was a useful reminder that, although our daily lives revolve around selling books, the reason we became publishers in the first place was to spread something that’s worth sharing, whether it’s information or inspiration. The insights from today’s Quantum conference should help us in our mission to share our stories with the ever-changing world ahead of us.