FutureBook’s 2017 Triple Threat: Big Asks and Diverse Voices

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Leading questions and an extensive three-tracked structure frame the programming of this year’s FutureBook conference from The Bookseller team in London.

Last year’s FutureBook conference was the first at the 155 Bishopsgate venue in Liverpool Street. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Commentary: Any Questions?

When delegates gather on Friday (December 1) at London’s 155 Bishopsgate for The Bookseller’s FutureBook 2017 conference, some of them may notice that the program is written almost entirely in questions.

  • Vikki Chowney of H+K, for example, has a keynote titled “The View From Digital, What’s Next for Content Formats?”
  • HarperCollins’ always eloquent Chantal Restivo-Alessi has another keynote, one close to the mission of Publishing Perspectives, “A Whole World Approach; Where Digital and Global Publishing Meet?”
  • A panel wrestles with the puzzler “How Can We Help More Authors Reach More Readers in a Distracted World?”
  • Another grapples with “How Can We Better Use Data To Capture and Keep Our Readers?”
  • Yet another braves the quandary “What Can We Learn From the Video-on-Demand Business?”
  • Still another takes on “How Best Can Digital and Physical Spaces Work Together To Sell More Books?”

In fact, one of the few things that’s not posed as a question is the theme for this year’s conference: “Don’t Delegate the Future.”

Some 75 speakers include Bonnier’s Richard Johnson; Macmillan’s Sara Lloyd and Wonderbly’s (used to be Lost My Name) Asi Sharabi; Canelo’s Nick Bareto; the incisive Gordon Wise from Curtis Brown; HarperCollins’ Nick Coveney; Kobo’s indefatigable Michael Tamblyn, still remembered for the funniest FutureBook speech on record; BookBub’s Annie Stone; Penguin Random House’s Albert Hogan; The Curve author Nicholas Lovell; Ebury’s ingenious Rebecca Smart; Canongate’s cunning Jamie Byng; Book Choice’s Nathan Hull; Mammoth’s Preethi Mavahalli; Hodder’s Lis Tribe; and Dialogue Books’ Sharmaine Lovegrove.

And while it’s interesting to see a sort of genteel co-opting of the Kindle’s 10th anniversary posited as “ten years into the digital revolution,” the energy behind the advance commentary on the event from Bookseller editor Philip Jones and his team is promising, prudent, purposeful.

“This year’s FutureBook conference, the largest yet,” writes Jones, “covers the digital, audio, and edtech sectors and poses series questions, with insight provided by the panelists and delegates engaging from the floor.”

Catch that? “Series questions,” Jones wrote in his leader piece to the FutureBook Preview magazine. Did he mean “serious questions?” A lot of them are serious enough, as we all know.

But series, too, the series as an old-new phenomenon in content presentation is a feature of many explorations in publishing today. We can start with FutureBook speaker Molly Barton’s Serial Box—and the more-than 400 million serial installments so far uploaded onto Toronto’s Wattpad platform. And then there’s the irony that precisely when a new golden age of television series learns to release its bounty in full-seasons for avid binge-watching, publishing seems to have learned (again) to eke out stories, a bit at a time.

The FutureBook event itself has become a bit of a binge, a three-ring conference. Jones, with the support of Emma Lowe and my successor as FutureBook editor Molly Flatt, has trifurcated Europe’s largest annual publishing conference this way:

  • The main event
  • A fully programmed parallel audiobook series of sessions
  • A fully programmed parallel edtech series of sessions

For a clue as to what drives this maturing event to become The Three Faces of FutureBook, take a look at the results of The Bookseller’s annual Digital Census.

The 2015 FutureBook drinks reception was held onstage under a blue moon. Image: Porter Anderson

Ready for Another Digital Disruption?

This year’s assessment of the responses to the census is written by Sam Missingham. She’s my predecessor in editing The FutureBook. There have been three of us, too, the editors of FutureBook.

The information the census lays out shows what many of us felt at the Frankfurter Buchmesse this year: a kind of tight smile is seizing the industry, maybe because “around half of you think the book trade will be hit by another major disruption within five years,” as Jones puts it.

And here’s Missingham: “UK publishers are confident that digital is integrated across their businesses. This is encouraging and shows that they consider themselves able to handle further disruption.” What could possibly go wrong?

Needless to say, The Bookseller’s Digital Census isn’t scientific, of course, and that’s fine. Answering its questions is voluntary, it’s a survey of a self-selecting sample. And while it’s internationally available, the overwhelming majority of respondents are from the UK for which The Bookseller is the trade publication of record.

What the census offers each year is a way to catch the tone of the times, more a blood-pressure check than a data field.

Here are a few inputs from the census, with Missingham’s explications in quotes:

  • “Across UK publishers, on average 63 percent of revenue comes from print, 32 percent from digital and 5 percent from audio. The census shows a significant number of publishers are still making no revenue from audiobooks.” As we look at a second year’s strand of the conference entirely devoted to audiobooks, isn’t that a striking insight?
  • “The responses from UK publishers paint a strong picture for digital revenue, with 54 percent experiencing growth in 2017 and only 13 percent seeing declining revenue (33 percent were flat).” Here’s the important bit: “The publishers who saw rapid growth put this down to three key drivers: pricing strategy, marketing and a better understanding of readers.”
  • “Close to 85 percent recognized that digital has expanded their businesses. In particular, many UK publishers are seeing sales beyond their home markets.” Not bad for what once was the unmentionable d-word.
  • One more: Respondents are asked who has done well from the digital transformation of the industry? Writes Missingham, “It’s no surprise that publishers put Amazon on top…UK publishers also consider self-published authors and readers as the other big winners of the digital transformation. However, they do not think traditionally published authors, literary agents and bookshops have benefited from the transformation of the industry.”

Nigel Roby, Jones, Lowe, Flatt, and their associates have been growing this conference with more risk-taking moxie than the program’s text can convey. If the current model has a mildly frenetic air thanks to its many moving parts—including a live podcast during the day—it’s a clue to their zeal for innovation in the pink glow of The FutureBook.

Through no one’s fault, of course, the “future” part is still where most of the attention goes. This is an industry conference, and the industry has much to figure out about its future—as Jones is telling us, delegating it is the answer to none of these questions.

In times of change-exhaustion, though, it’s comforting to wonder, at least, if we won’t eventually see a BookFuture, something about newly derived traction for reading by as many men as women, as many adults as children, as many multicultural hues and dialects and worldviews as there are in the marketplace. That conference might even be blue, not pink, how soothing.

But meanwhile, in this most political of so many years, here’s one more question for you: What word do you not find in the program for Friday, at least as it’s listed on the conference site? Brexit.

As we seem to be learning in the Newer World, too, maybe a few things this year are simply better left unasked, Pocahontas.

This is the ‘Big Ideas’ closing session of the 2014 FutureBook conference, which was held at Westminster’s QEII Centre. Image: Porter Anderson

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.