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Report from the UK’s FutureBook Conference: Bringing Great Writers into the Digital, Multimedia Mix

tablet pc

By Sophie Rochester

LONDON: If there was a key lesson from the first FutureBook conference organized by The Bookseller magazine and held in London for the first time last year, it was “experiment, learn and adapt”. Back again for a second conference, held the past Tuesday, the UK publishing industry appears to be responding well to the challenges of digital publishing. We were sharply reminded by Rebecca Smart (Managing Director, Osprey Group) that “change is hard“, but the 2010 speakers, who this year came mostly from inside the publishing industry, demonstrated that publishers are able to evolve and adapt for digital in interesting and different ways.

The big question remains: “Where are the revenue streams for digital publishing?” And although much hope is pinned on the iPad (and other tablets), we still don’t know exactly how big this market will be. YouGov, an international internet-based market research firm, offered figures projecting that 12% of the UK population will soon own a tablet, demonstrating the huge potential market for publishers. But while experimenting with content on these devices is still key to learning what will and won’t work, the risk of these experiments not generating revenue makes this learning process difficult for many publishers.

So, for many delegates if there was one presentation that really stood out at FutureBook 2010 it was when Max Whitby, founder and CEO of Touch Press, spoke about The Elements iPad app. Not only was the project a unique idea (at the time) with an amusing story attached to it (after all -– publishers and booksellers like stories), he revealed Touch Press have so far sold over 150,000 units at $14 each -– with Touch Press receiving a 70% share of those sales. For the creators of The Elements this translates into nearly $1.5 million in revenue. Rarely do we get to hear about iPad app sales for book apps – publishers are apparently unable to share sales figures because of restrictions from Apple –- and these heartening figures had everyone sitting upright in their seats.

Henry Volans, Head of Digital at UK independent Faber & Faber, followed this news about The Elements iPad app, by revealing a forthcoming collaborative project the publisher is doing with Whitby and Touch Press called The Solar System for iPad. The Solar System app will be a complete guide to our solar system, using interactive software to include multi-touch screen functionality, rotating 3D images of the planets and custom-made animations and videos. The demo was incredible.

The beauty of this collaboration is that, on the one side, Faber brought to the table a great writer –- New Scientist cosmology consultant Marcus Chown –- and an established publishing brand, while Touch Press was able deliver the technology to create a mind-blowing app and access to an established international market seeded through the success of The Elements app. And if sales come anywhere near those of The Elements it stands to make some great profits for all parties involved.

Volans noted that Faber Digital is independent of both Faber’s e-book publishing section and the newly launched Faber Factory. The department also has different criteria: Faber Digital projects have to be commercially viable, must reflect and extend the Faber brand, and don’t necessarily have to follow the print publishing program. This last point is crucial as Volans explained the creation of The Solar System app had “none of the rights issues that can hamper innovation elsewhere.”

So what of the Faber digital products with a print publishing equivalent? Here Volans also presented three cleverly thought out products –- The Thick of It, Harry Hill and QI.

With the words “must be commercially viable” still in mind, you can understand why they chose three very commercial books to take to the app format -– all three are based on hugely popular TV programs in the UK with firmly entrenched audiences. Working in partnership with the agency Agant, each app will complement front and backlist titles and, importantly, give consumers a reason to buy these products independently.

In particular, Malcolm Tucker’s iPhone app (available soon in the App store and to be called Malcolm Tucker: The Missing Phone) is a superb spin-off idea from The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files book, which has been neatly executed. Volans explained that the app “adds new dimensions of storytelling” and puts the user into the storyline –- with angry incoming messages from Malcolm Tucker, confused messages from Minister Nicola Murray and “Ollie-type” messages coming from Ollie. It only takes a quick Google search to see that The Thick of It fans can’t wait to get hold of this app, and for Faber you can see that this product has the potential to reach a much wider audience than the print book.

At the end of Volan’s presentation we also got a brief sniff of a second Faber/Touch Press collaboration on the horizon, which will be based on “a defining Faber poem,” and released in January. Interactive poetry for the iPad? Intriguing . . .

A final FutureBook session tackled the now-familiar issues of piracy and DRM. UK literary agent Carole Blake hit the nail on the head in her response to a piracy question when she replied that instead of worrying about piracy and DRM, shouldn’t publishers be concentrating more on continuing to be innovative and offering customers new products that they are willing to pay for?

This is what Faber & Faber are already doing –- and other publishers should take note that partnership and collaboration can pave the way to some amazing projects – and let’s not forget that publishers still hold the key to bringing great writers into this multimedia content mix.

Sophie Rochester is the founding editor of The Literary Platform.

DISCUSS: Who are the Top Digital Innovators of 2010?

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2 Comments

  1. Posted December 2, 2010 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Good roundup especially as I couldn’t make it over so close to Thanksgiving.
    No question The Elements is an appealing, well-done app. That said, cost to create and update across platforms? Time to build and get to market? Did anyone touch on this related to ROI and challenge of discoverability? I love a number of apps I use, many of which are book-related, but had my friends in the business not told me about them, who knows if I’d ever find/buy them. Lastly, did anyone touch on willingness of consumer to pay more than say $1.99 for an app? It’s worth noting that Elements also came out at iPad’s debut when fewer apps were live plus Apple promoted it in ads if I’m not mistaken. I heard a lot of buzz in favor of app creation at ToC FF too and just think one needs to be cautious and not do it just to have one (or more)…

  2. gregorylent
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    digital publishing will make the same money as scribes a few hundred years ago … knowledge = printed books only in the brief industrial age.

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