Using smart thinking to build a better tomorrow: FutureBook Live 2019

FutureBook Innovation panel

Monday’s FutureBook Live conference, hosted by The Bookseller, felt deeply grounded in realistic, achievable innovations; actions we can embed in our daily lives to bring about real change.

The focus of the day was less about VR headsets and more about changing the ways we think: questions such as how we interpret our marketing data, who we welcome into our industry and where we go to meet our readers. Maybe the most important innovations we make today are grounded in the way we approach our vocation as publishers. If we want to build a better world, we need to do more than simply introduce a new types of technology: we need to develop an innovative mindset that looks at all aspects of our work. As FutureBook’s Molly Flatt said in her introduction, what we do as publishers matters.

Use data intelligently

The first keynote speech of the day came from James Daunt, MD of Waterstones and, since last August, CEO of Barnes & Noble. Speaking of the challenges facing B&N, Daunt explained that the chain had been gathering customer data for seven years, but had yet to act on it to tailor the bookstore experience to different audiences. “The one thing you can never be, if you want to live in the new bookselling age of Amazon, is boring.” For Daunt, this means empowering staff to combine the data they have with their own judgement as bookstore curators, to create a personal connection with readers.

Paul Abbassi of Bookstat used his keynote to reveal just how much ebook sales data we’re missing out on. In the period May-Oct 2019, publishers’ self-reported ebook sales in the UK amounted to £93.7m, with the Big Five accounting for 78% of these. But according to Bookstat’s calculations, the total revenue for this period was actually £163.3m, once self-published and other non-traditional income streams are added – bringing the Big Five share down to 45%. Abbassi’s message is that UK ebook consumers are spending 75% more than publishers report, and buying twice as many ebooks. By digging into this detailed data on consumer behaviour, we can identify new, targeted opportunities, including genres which are underserved by traditional publishers but which have eager book-buying audiences.

Detailed data analysis from Abbassi also provided insights into the audiobook market, in the Generation Headphone session. Here, the main challenge to traditional publishers comes not from self-publishers but from Amazon’s own imprints, which account for 18% of all audiobook sales.

In the same session Lee Langford of Harris Interactive presented the findings of research into the audiobook audience, commissioned by FutureBook. The research showed that 77% of the UK population reads or listens to books, and those people consume an average of 12 books per year. Of these, 15% had listened to an audiobook in the past year. The audiobook audience skews towards younger men with a family and a high salary, though of course there are listeners from all ages and income levels. One insight that reveals the impact of new technology is that 21% of audiobook listeners now listen on a smart speaker – up from only 2% two years ago.

While demographic categories help us to spot patterns in audience behaviour, a useful counterpoint came from Victoria Loomes of TrendWatching, in a session titled Get Smart: How to Innovate Like an Outsider. In their work with brands and trends, Loomes and her team have come to conclude that a lot of the traditional demographic markers aren’t as relevant as we used to think. People are freer now to choose their own identities and interests, rather than falling into expected behaviours for their demographic. For herself Loomes stated that, despite being a 30something woman, she isn’t particularly interested in shopping or getting engaged, and she quoted the head of Netflix, who revealed that many 50-something women are watching Breaking Bad, while lots of teenage boys are watching baking shows – new platforms are making it easier for us to connect to content that might not seem to be aimed at us.

Use technology to solve problems

Consonance’s Emma Barnes and Sara O’Connor gave a presentation about the Day of Code, held at Hachette on 22 November. The day saw 40 participants, from 20 publishers, coached by 16 technologists from inside and outside publishing, and by the end of the day, each participant had built a publishing website from scratch, using HTML, CSS, Ruby and ONIX 3.

The aim of the day was not to transform us (yes, I was one of the lucky 40 participants) into lifelong coders – though that would be an amazing outcome. As Emma explained on the Day of Code website: “We expect you to leave today being able to make the same sort of non-expert, but curious, observations that come from increased agency and might just save some money.” By understanding more about how the technology we use every day actually works, we gain more power to make the right decisions for us and our companies.

For more BookMachine content on the Day of Code, see Anna Cunnane on why publishing people make great coders, and John Pettigrew on the reasons for learning to code. (Both Anna and John were coaches on the day itself – our thanks to them and all the coaches!)

Technological innovation came under the spotlight in the BookTech awards, with a pitching session hosted by Bec Evans of Prolifiko. In each presentation, we saw how a small team had come together to solve a particular problem connected to the publishing industry:

  1. ckbk, an online cookbook platform, enabling users to adapt, select and share recipes: “Spotify for recipes”.
  2. DeepZen, an AI humanlike voice solution for audiobook production.
  3. Make Our Book, a system that uses self-publishing tech so that children can publish their own books.
  4. MyVLF, a platform for online literary festivals.
  5. Noisy Book, an iOS app that adds sound effects as you read aloud.
  6. Vika Books, an AR project to inspire children and parents to learn British Sign Language.

For more on the BookTech awards, see Bec’s article on how to get inspired to be more innovative.

Think differently

Perhaps more than ever before, this year’s FutureBook was permeated by calls for us to change not the tools we use but the way we think. Orion’s Katie Espiner set the tone from the beginning of the day in her keynote, identifying two key changes that need to take place in the next year: firstly, we need to open more offices outside London, and secondly, we need to start stating salaries on every job advert. Anyone who follows publishing closely will know just how radical those two suggestions are. Observing that “we’re actually quite bad at innovating in this industry,” Espiner highlighted the achievements of the inclusive children’s publisher Knights Of: they saw a situation that needed to change, and they went to work and changed it themselves.

Rounding off the day, FutureBook’s Person of the Year, Kit de Waal, touched on similar issues. De Waal praised the progress she has seen over the past three years: an “explosion” of bursaries for writers, a lowering of entry barriers to the publishing industry, and the beginnings of a shift into the world beyond London. Alongside this, she also raised key issues we still have to engage with, such as the decimation of the UK’s public libraries and the challenge of reaching reading audiences we are not connected to yet.

Akua Agyemfra of bea.London gave insights into her work with Stormzy on the Merky Books imprint at Penguin, in her keynote speech. While many publishers are making efforts to work in a more inclusive, representative way, all too often this work can feel like a project, something that happens in the sidelines. As Agyemfra pointed out, the culture in which we live should be part of everything we do, not a special project or a byword. “Culture is our reality,” she reminded us.

To close, here are Agyemfra’s tips on how to develop our thinking and make better books that reflect the world around us:

  • Go outside – leave the building. Literally walking down the street can clear a mindblock.
  • Speak to everyone – both face to face and on social media, it’s easy for us to gauge the temperature of people’s responses to things we want to try.
  • Assume nothing – for example, don’t assume that young people don’t read. They actually read a lot, especially on social media – so it’s down to us to find new ways to speak to them.
  • Listen to understand – don’t just listen in the expectation of hearing a particular answer.
  • Be bold – once you get cracking, the rest is easy.
  • Call in experts (who wants to do all the work anyway?) – don’t assume you know everything, but focus on what you want to achieve and get help to do that.

With four sessions running at the same time for much of the day, I’ve only been able to touch on a fraction of the material covered at this year’s FutureBook. If you’d like to know more, follow the hashtag #FutureBook19 on Twitter – and stay tuned to The Bookseller for details of 2020’s event.

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