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Opening Up: FutureBook Insights

Two weeks ago, I went to a conference. In between project deadlines, school pick-ups, cooking tea, and team catch-ups. Here’s what I learnt…

Faced with the still raging pandemic and much like all other conferences and events in 2020, this year the Bookseller’s FutureBook went virtual. It may have felt very different from previous years and of course, there were some elements of the experience that were lost, but for people like me, being digital made FutureBook accessible in a way it’s never been before.

I could fit FutureBook into my busy schedule, dipping in without having to worry about blocking out whole days, playing catch-up around it, arranging epic travel trips and expensing costly hotels. For independent professionals working away from the capital, going virtual stacked up. This year the conference took place in my spare room (and kitchen, and sometimes headphones on a run). I was in control of what, when and where I attended. It was wonderful.

Alongside innovating in delivery – with an interactive programme, opportunity to ‘chat’ and contribute to live panels, and playback of the conference’s talks available until January – FutureBook’s content had a real focus on innovation too. Innovation out of necessity; how we’ve all had to adapt the way we work in response to ‘the new normal’, but also how we need to recognise and act on hearing, representing, finding, sharing and reaching the voices, audiences, stories and perspectives that make up the world we live in.

"This year's FutureBook saw innovation out of necessity"
There were so many valuable insights to take away from FutureBook it’s hard to focus in on a few, but here’s my attempt at a top three…

1. Audiobook platforms need to catch up with other content platforms. And that starts now.

With panels, talks and contributions from market leaders and challengers in the world of audio content, the message that came through loud and clear is that change is coming. The idea of paying for one audiobook at a time is being upended by subscription models from platforms like Storytel (coming to the UK next year) that operate more like Netflix or Spotify, with monthly fees and unlimited titles.

When the comparison is made that starkly it seems obvious and crazy that we still work on a book-by-book basis when it comes to what we pay for and listen to. Imagine the shake-up that’s coming for audiences and publishers, when audiobooks start streaming like movies.

2. Amazon bashing isn’t helpful. Let’s find a viable alternative.

The agents’ panel on Wednesday was a fascinating look into the challenges experienced by literary agencies across the board during the pandemic, wrestling with working from home, finding new approaches to drive sales (what does Waterstones Book of the Month mean, without a shop to push it through?), and having to support and pivot with authors and publishers struggling to navigate the oddities 2020 has kept throwing at us.

But the really meaty stuff came when the panel began discussing Amazon’s ubiquity and its impact for independent bookshops, publishers, authors and agents. There was debate about the outlet’s role in- and commitment to publishing, the way some of its products and priorities undermine the longstanding principles of how the industry operates, and whether any of that is a bad thing, or a challenge to drive change.

Can publishers sell direct to the public? Will other platforms really be able to take on Amazon for its online bookselling crown? Through all the case-making and strong opinions, one point really got to the heart of the issue for me. Curtis Brown’s Catherine Summerhayes highlighted the fact however we feel about the virtual retail giant, we have to accept that it’s a vital part of the ecosystem until there are truly viable alternatives. For people living in rural locations, older or time-poor customers, often with digital security concerns, Amazon is trusted, reliable, convenient and immediate. Any challengers need to tick all those boxes before the king can be dethroned. Gauntlet thrown,

3. 2020 feels like a turning point for tackling prejudice in the industry. But only if we turn talk into action.

Social media outrage and # campaigns, industry reports, talk, talk, talk. It’s all important and valuable. But if we are really going to do something effective and impactful about the systemic racism in the publishing industry and the barriers to entry predominantly white, middle class professionals have constructed over centuries (myself and the majority of my colleagues included), we have to focus on action and change.

Conversations over the course of the week looked at how to adopt anti-racist practices and recognise unconscious bias, how to address the industry’s marketing and promotion strategies to respond to the interests and purchasing decisions of audiences hungry for fresh, brilliant, representative voices and stories, and how to be open to feedback and cope with being uncomfortable –because it’s the only way to tackle the issues our inherent racist patterns bring to every interaction. Nova Reid’s talk on being the change was eye-opening and inspiring in this regard, as was author Nels Abbey’s keynote. Lots to think about. And then, more importantly, act on.

Thanks FutureBook. Here’s to next year.

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