The FutureBook conference, held in London on November 30, brought together 520 attendees from the U.K.’s major publishers, specialty and university presses, startups, and solution providers, as well as from well-known British institutions including the BBC and the British Library, to discuss how publishers can make books “more compelling than Netflix,” as the Bookseller’s Molly Flatt put it. Flatt warned that Netflix is the real disruption coming the industry’s way: there are so many forms of entertainment, people will lose interest in reading.
Though the day’s program flirted with how to capture new audiences (especially millennial men) with VR, AI, augmented reality, and 3-D spatial audio, it was most squarely focused on trends in downloadable audiobooks, voice technology, and podcasts.
Predicting that audiobook sales will overtake those of e-books, Miles Stevens-Hoare of audio publisher WF Howes, the largest independent audio publisher in the U.K., cautioned that the value of audio rights may be subject to reevaluation as profitability becomes the next focus for publishers after “the Wild West stage” of downloadable audiobook growth. Noting that “producing quality audiobooks is not a cheap act, and consumers will continue to demand quality,” he suggested that some smaller publishers may “back away” due to production costs.
In general, the U.K. audio market has settled down, Stevens-Hoare said, now that Audible is making a profit, Google has entered the audio market proactively, and Apple has announced that it will launch its audiobook service in the near future. In addition, the promising independent service Storytel is doing well with multilanguage streaming, and WF Howe’s own Audiobooks.com is expanding into new territories. Other players, such as Bookchoice and Bookbeat, have departed the market. Meanwhile, Stevens-Hoare sees children’s audio as an underserved area.
Moments later, Curtis Brown literary agent Cathryn Summerhayes blasted Hachette, HarperCollins, and Penguin Random House for “directly taking money from authors’ pockets” when it comes to audio—by sitting on audio rights, paying “pitiful” royalties to authors on audiobook sales, and ignoring audio in their marketing and publicity plans. “There really is a sense of, ‘Oh gosh, hasn’t audio done well despite us doing nothing!’ ” she said, before complaining of an even worse situation for backlist titles.
Though audiobooks may be of special interest in the U.K. because of its rich radio culture centered around the BBC, radio consultant James Cridland pointed out that nine out of 10 people across the world listen to the radio, and more people listen to the download of the New York Times podcast The Daily than read the paper. He also noted that, after much industry speculation about what would become “the Spotify for audiobooks,” Spotify itself has become the top podcast source in the U.K., followed by Pandora and new podcast services such as Entale, which adds images and notes to podcasts.
“New platforms mean new audiences” observed consultant Muki Kulhan, who outlined ways that publishers can appeal to young audiences in her opening keynote, drawing on her deep expertise producing interactive and immersive content and stories in the music and broadcasting industry with MTV and other companies. While describing how music brands are using VR and audio to create 360-degree experiences, she emphasized the need to “create a balance between the technology and the humanity” by putting consumers at the center of immersive storytelling and letting them make choices that could be adapted by authors. Among her examples of successful VR strategies that could be adapted by authors were British rapper Harry Shotta’s site-specific augmented reality rap opera Consequences, which won a prize at the Future of Storytelling Summit in New York last October, and a collaboration between the Black Eyed Peas and Marvel Comics that included a graphic novel with an app that plays sound effects and music, while animated graphics appear to pop out of the book with help from 3-D glasses.
Many speakers explored what meaningful innovation looks like for publishers after so many experiments and startups have failed and folded. “At the end of the day, innovation matters to our authors and our retail partners,” said Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah. “If all we do is take text and put it in a book and online, then we are irrelevant. But if we figure out what our customers, readers, authors are doing, and what they need next, then we are incredibly relevant.” To nurture a “growth mind-set” among her employees, she created a series of trainings drawn from Carol Black’s book Mindset. She knew it was working when colleagues told her they had taken home the support materials and shared them with their children.
For Marcus Leaver, who was recently named chairman of mental health publisher Trigger after leaving the Quarto Group last June, the ideal publisher “is a managed platform that provides talented publishers—working with talented authors, experts, and illustrators—the entrepreneurial opportunities to build a business within a structured framework which optimizes the creative process.”
David Shelley, director of Hachette, said, “Today tech makes it easier to publish books. But what matters is how we use it—the stories we tell, and who we tell them to. Everything else is just infrastructure.” Workforce diversity was also a notable theme in his keynote, perhaps because the conference took place the same day as the release of Hachette UK’s 2018 gender pay-gap figures, which publishers are now required to release by U.K. law. Shelley said that the industry “should have moved on much further,” noting that “it is to our discredit that we haven’t.”
At the end of the day, participants left with more than enough new strategies to ponder. “There is no shortage of ideas in publishing,” said Albert Hogan, head of group marketing, audience, and digital development at Penguin Random House UK. “The challenge is to focus on the right ones, get small teams on them, then step back to build skills and come back to the project with a new perspective.”