At London’s FutureBook: Focus on Climate and Sustainability

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

From its opening keynote to the closing presentation of the 2021 awards, diversity and sustainability were at the heart of FutureBook.

Author and Earth system science professor Mark Maslin onstage at the FutureBook conference in London. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

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

Sustainability, Diversity
With its online cohort reportedly having grown to 600 people at one point during the program, today’s (November 19) FutureBook conference has also drawn what organizers say is at least 250 attendees to its physical program at London’s 155 Bishopsgate venue.

The evolution of FutureBook—not just its audience presence— includes a gentle distancing, too, from the show’s trademark pink lighting, the main Broadgate plenary room taking on more orange hues. The energy of the day itself has run a few shades more serious than in the past.

While specialized programming can be examined in later reports, it’s interesting to see that the day has opened and, at this writing, is heading for its close on the subject of the climate crisis.

The opener was put across in a TED-toned keynote from Mark Maslin, author and professor of Earth system science at University College London.

His How To Save Our Planet, released in the United Kingdom on May 6 by Penguin Life, ran into a too-typical response, he said, from some American publishers. When asked if they’d be interested in the United States rights to the book, Maslin said—and even in the run-up at that time to COP26—the answers ran along the lines of a familiar retort: “We already have one of those books.”

Maslin’s answer to that was telling: “Do you know how many books there are on gardening?”

And yet by day’s end, that rather simplified truism—that publishing can at times lose sight of the gravity of something and apply a concept of avoiding topical repetition—had come into sharper relief.

The Bookseller’s Miriam Robinson led a panel of book people—a bookseller, a marketing specialist, a librarian, an author—to explore how to move such a huge topic as the climate crisis to a more human scale.

Maslin had explained that the United Nations’ talks on climate in Glasgow had drawn pledges that might get warming levels to something between 2.4 and 2.8 Celsius, not the 1.5 needed.

Sam Taylor of Bristol’s Max Minerva’s Marvellous Books, had the bookseller’s answer. “If the customer comes in and asks for a crime thriller,” he said, “I’m not going to say, ‘How about a book on environmental science?’

“But if somebody comes in and asks for a really good story,” he said, that’s when the hand-selling capabilities of a strong retailer kick in, and, pending what a consumer’s interests turn out to be, it’s that human connection that may bring a reader to the sort of individual encounter with the climate crisis that stories may well deliver more effectively than recitations of technical details of the mounting emergency.

Throughout the day—the physical audience spaced broadly among seats in the meeting halls—conversations onstage and off have looked at the place and potential of literature and the business that produces it in such human terms—right through to diversity specialist June Sarpong’s discussion of diversity, “the economics of inclusion,” and how racism that can mean “money is being left on the table,” in addition to its obvious social and humanitarian challenges.

“It’s absolutely vital to business success and survival and in terms of future-proofing the business,” Sarpong said. “When we understand the benefits of diversity and inclusion, it’s worth pushing through that discomfort in order to get to the other side.”

FutureBook Awards

An audience member in London asks a question of panelists on the topic of specialized festival work. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

In a coincidental parallel to the day’s announcement of the Association of American Publishers’ new expansion of its policy portfolio to bring new focus to sustainability and diversity, those two major themes would remain the key pillars of the day at FutureBook here in London.

As the FutureBook Awards announcements arrived in the evening—with special sponsorship support from Midas—a new category, Sustainability, was front and center, FutureBook’s producers at The Bookseller writing, “This award is for an initiative, launched during 2021, that will either help to reduce the book trade’s impact on the environment through measurable objective, or which raises awareness of this problem with the aim of working towards measurable targets.”

The Independent Publishers Guild (IPG) won that new Sustainability Award.

The Event category award—which looked at publishers’ presentational activities in the coronavirus COVID-19 emergency—went to Four Communications for its work on the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction program.

The award for the Campaign category was given to Fleur Clarke of HarperCollins for her campaign for Empire of the Vampire (Jay Kristoff), at a time when the virus challenged most normal means of raising visibility.

In the Team category, the award went to Hachette’s “The Feminist Book Box” program, this award recognizing “groups in the UK who have made a powerful difference to the book business in the past 12 months.”

The award in the Discover category, sponsored by Audible—a new award category that refers to the imperative for book publishing to bring forward the work of under-represented writers—was given to two nominees, the Bad Form Review and Lit in Colour, with a high commendation going to the Working-Class Writers’ Festival.

The Bookseller’s editor, Philip Jones, wasn’t only involved in strong onstage interview work and session leadership throughout the day, but also was on hand to honor the winner of the Start-Up category—Andy Hunter’s

And, finally, the FutureBook Person of the Year is the Manchester United and English footballer Marcus Rashford, honored “for using his platform to promote reading and books as well as for speaking out on child poverty during the pandemic.”

As the in-house audience headed for the drinks reception following the day’s events put together by Jones, Molly Flatt, Emma Lowe, Tom Tivnan, and the rest of The Bookseller team, the happy hubbub and energetic greetings were still going on.

It is, as so many world publishing events are demonstrating this autumn, a very good thing to be able to gather in person again.

The Bookseller editor Philip Jones talks with an audience member during a breakout session at FutureBook 2021. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on the FutureBook and its conference is here, more from us on The Bookseller is here, more on the UK market is here, and more from us on world publishing events in trade shows, book fairs, conferences, and festivals is here.

Porter Anderson is a former associate editor of The FutureBook at The Bookseller.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

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 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.