Does It Matter if There’s Life on Mars?

Stephen Page by Marta Gala

Faber & Faber CEO, Stephen Page’s speech ‘Does it matter if there’s Life on Mars?’ presented at Futurebook 2015.

I’m no fan of ‘the New Normal’. This lazy and comforting phrase is dangerous: it encourages complacency and invites us to sit back, not lean forward. Today I want to talk about the agendas I’d like to see progressed in the near future, not indulge in admiring an apparently new steady state.

The release of the film The Martian couldn’t have been more timely. My teenage sons have been fascinated by the prospect of living on Mars, but it has made me wonder why people are so keen to get off this planet and live in a place where temperatures fall to over –100 degrees daily, dust storms ravage the surface and there’s barely any water. But Mars is somehow seen as the future; Earth’s failure is rumoured to be inevitable.

In publishing terms, futures have been painted as unappealing but as apparently obvious as human migration to the Red Planet. Ebooks will eat print. Subscription will replace digital sales. Shops will be wiped out by online.

For a decade or more publishers have been berated, taunted, criticised for their inability to ‘get it’, ‘it’ being the future. But here we are today, not on a dying planet but a changed one. So my question today is, Are we done with revolution and change? Do we need to dream of another publishing planet any more?

Recently, and not for the first time, relief has broken out with talk of the New Normal. I understand what this refers to, and am enjoying it too, but I’d rather call it a dynamic equilibrium. There’s clearly a better sense of stability. Ebook sales are apparently settling. Retailers are finding readers and shoppers, and Bookscan shows print sales up year on year. The pioneering new formats publishers have developed have expanded but not replaced the book. The vast majority of our audience want books in physical or e-forms; they know where to buy them and how to read them, and they will pay for them. Unless you’re a Spanish publisher, piracy feels manageable.

Michael Pietsch’s article on the future of publishing in the Wall Street Journal this week epitomises the new sense of confidence in the industry. At Faber we too feel that something is changing, something profound and cultural, as books and ideas have proved resilient to the disruptive technologies that have swept aside other industries. I can’t prove this but when I look at the range of good books being talked about and selling well this year, both at Faber and across the market, I feel confident of Faber’s opportunity to thrive as the publisher we want to be – not one polarised into hits and misses, but one supplying a hungry and intelligent readership with diverse and excellent books. I’ve got to say that the many people in the industry with a vocation for doing just this – be they agents, publishers, booksellers or librarians – should be feeling a spring in their step. The expanded Independent Alliance is one response to this sense of reinvigoration.

This dynamic equilibrium is an exciting platform from which we can continue to evolve our industry with confidence. In the main, the book industry evolved smartly over the last decade, including the rise of self-publishing. We’ve been proved right about a great deal, and have made good judgements and arrived in a recognisable, possible world. I don’t think that’s complacent. Now I have an electric sense of opportunity. Our world is changing, and fast, but the urgency is not for survival but continued, deliberate evolution. But to stay strong the publishing and bookselling industry needs to address fast-moving agendas.

The central question remains unchanged: How do we derive value for writers and win time and money from our attention-assaulted consumers?

For me, success at today’s conference will come from jettisoning talk of the New Normal, and identifying our new priorities. Most of the agendas already exist within publishing and bookselling’s current model, but important issues need foregrounding.

So here is my top five.

  1. Shops Aren’t Dead

Someone actually said this to me recently, as if it was a huge surprise. When Amazon opened a shop my first thought was, What took them so long? Every bookseller I’ve visited recently is an omni-channel retailer, with both an online and bricks-and-mortar offering. Look at Foyles’ latest same-day click-and-collect offering. Waterstones have been combining online and offline since the 1990s. Many independent bookshops are excellent at online messaging with a characterful, personal web presence linked to the store. So the new omni-channel buzz emphasises the critical nature of physical stores. Dang Dang – the Amazon of China – has announced a plan to open 1,000 physical bookshops in the next three years. See you and raise you, Jeff.

What’s interesting is that much future gazing presumed that the physical world was done. But the digital and online world has forced a reaction from the physical world, and one that consumers have responded to. Five years ago the Independent Alliance had 80 affiliate independent bookshop members. It now has 220. Waterstones under James Daunt’s leadership is close to profitable through taking a bold turn towards bookselling skills, more selective price promotion and strong curation. Experience and community are vital in retail, both online and offline, and both can be combined powerfully.

In the past few months I’ve begun a tour of UK independents looking to get under the skin of the new bookselling and I believe strongly that publishers have to up their game in partnering with all parts of the book trade to create an even more dynamic interface with our core market. None of this sounds particularly FutureBook-ish but I really believe that a partnership with omni-channel retailers is different in some parts to the old selling structures. What all booksellers need from publishers is excellent, timely information, availability of writers for events, digital materials – especially video – and encouragement to be entrepreneurial with our lists.

I talked to the team at Foyles about the refit of the Charing Cross Road branch. Their rather modest description was of just doing everything better, saying that 70% of retailing is exactly as it has ever been, but you can do it better and the other 30% offers new opportunity.

So publishers need to revisit their commitments to the book trade and be equally challenging to themselves about doing everything for the trade better. It’s where our growth will come from. We might ask ourselves what omni-channel publishing looks like. We have channels beyond the book trade – our own and our authors’ web presence and social activity, our brands and the promotional assets we create. I wonder if we thought more about all our channels as one, whether we might create a greater audience and support the vital book trade on and offline.

There is a new ecology to shopping and it requires publishers to think and react to renewed partnership with shops.

  1. Mobile

If the first law of publishing is to find great copyright and create value from it. Perhaps in the twenty-first century the zero law will be to understand mobile, because without expert understanding of what mobile will do to consumer behaviour publishers and booksellers may struggle to find many audiences.
In 2012 there were 1.1 billion smartphones in the world, there are 1.9 billion now, forecast to be 2.8 billion in 2018. In the UK that graph goes from 26 million to 34 million to 46 million, and already includes 90% of 16–24 year olds. Two-thirds of UK adults own one.

During 2014, 4G subscriptions have leapt from 2.7 million to 23.6 million. According to Ofcom, smartphone users with 4G are shopping online more than those without 4G (55% of 4G users do this compared with 35% of non-4G users) and they shop for twice as long. 4G users are banking more online, watching more TV and video clips, video messaging and managing social updates, and so on. You’ll be hearing more expertly about mobile today, and rightly so, as this is the biggest area of marketing challenge for the industry – for writers, publishers and booksellers. Not only are people going to be very busy with their phones – displacing reading time with shopping, browsing and social activity – they will be increasingly receiving most marketing and other messages through their mobiles. It will become a hugely competitive space. While e-reading will migrate to phones, our challenge is much more to do with search results, contextual advertising, social media and expert use of the opportunities smartphones create. And if anyone is wondering if this will only apply to the young and those who don’t read books, think again. 39% of 4G users are aged 35–54, only 21% under 24.

People will live differently in mobile-dominated societies and we must be brilliant at winning the marketing and attention battle for books and related reading platforms and products.

  1. People – Authors and Readers

People are changing their behaviour. There are no surprises here. Facebook and Instagram are social media. Facebook says it has now passed 1.23 billion monthly active users and has 751 million are using Facebook from a mobile device each month, up 54%. As we all know, this is already a major advertising route for brands and of course all publishers and booksellers use this channel.

But Facebook’s users are not keen on having relationships with corporations, preferring instead personalised relationships, including those with writers and more intimate brands that they trust. This challenges us, as I don’t believe that we’ve been clear enough about how we manage and/or create social channels for authors. Some authors arrive with great power to influence sales – they own their channel often. The YouTube Vloggers are the most obvious example, alongside TV-related authors or major fiction brands. As the route to creating demand becomes more influenced by authors’ messages to their social audiences, publishers will have to be clear what their own marketing is worth, and how expert and distinct it is. Amplifying an already loud noise is different from creating an audience from scratch. We have to get much stronger at creating rather than simply exploiting social interaction for writers. The most successful indie authors are exemplary at this.

  1. Who Will Work in This industry?

Max Plank said of paradigm shift that it only fully happens when all those who believed in the previous paradigm are dead. Now, I’m not encouraging a Logan’s Run moment in publishing when everyone over thirty is cheerfully whacked for the greater good, but I do think that we need to give the exciting new generation entering our industry room to adapt and to develop our businesses. In many tech and media businesses it is not unusual for people in their twenties to be able to lead.
This year the millennial generation are predicted to outnumber the Baby Boomers. We as an industry have a lot to offer them.

Research shows that this generation have different attitudes to work – they don’t like to be told what to do, but enjoy being asked questions. They like flexibility, they like culture, they like work–life balance and they are attuned to a less steady working life. The book world offers nourishing and fulfilling work with meaning, which should be appealing. For those interested in media, though, publishing is thought to be a less glamorous profession. It often doesn’t occur to many smart young people to head towards the book world. The PA is doing good work on this, but all of us have to look hard at our own cultures and keep evolving them to be productive and appropriate for a new generation of staff. If we attract the very best minds our industry will thrive. To do so we must be mindful of their expectations.

And there is, of course, the burning issue of diversity for all the creative industries, and perhaps most of all publishing. According to a research paper released by Policy Exchange, up to 30% of the UK population will be from an ethnic minority background by the middle of the century. It’s already true that we fail to represent in our staff the current demographics of the UK, and if we don’t address this in the coming years we will quickly fall further behind the truth of the society we publish to, and that will be a failure. Despite the good work of Creative Access and the steps we have all taken to address this, we’ve not done enough. Rather than throw our hands up and say that we have tried, we have to try much harder and in different, more radical ways. One thought is that the government’s wrong-headed drive for apprenticeships might be turned into a chance for us to take a bolder step.

  1. Not Book

Perhaps the biggest surprise to some in the last few years has been the robustness of the physical book. I was talking to a tech pioneer recently and he said that perhaps books had to stay the same in order for people to cope with the change going on in society and the world. He believed that long-form, concentrated reading was a route to inform and entertain in a different way to the Web or social worlds, and that the physical object and ownership of books remained, for those who care about it, vital. There’s plenty of evidence to back this up. But also, like bookselling, the physical book has not stood still. In relief to the object-free world of digital, publishers have worked hard to make the physical book better, giving the book market more to play with.

One thing future gazers can be guilty of is seeing one solution that replaces all. At Faber our digital journey continues to be about new opportunity, not replacement. So we do need to keep exploring. Perhaps the world around the book has become the more compelling place for development. The FutureBook Awards shortlists this year are dominated by platforms, digital services, marketing and web-based products. Publishers are using digital technology to widen the footprint around book publishing, and this is a good sign. There’s room to use tech to solve publishing challenges. The brilliant teams at Lost My Name and This Is My Cookbook have solved personalisation at scale through concentration on this one issue. These are physical book publishers entirely dependent on technology.

But around the book there are platforms emerging that are smart, content-rich and serving readers in bold new ways. I love the Pelicanbooks site. It’s thrilling to me that a resource that used to line my parents’ bookshelves is now so portably accessible. At Faber we launched Faber Members. This wouldn’t have been affordable if not online. However, although we’re using a digital platform we’re offering nothing digital, just real-world events and highly beautiful physical books as our lure to members.

So rather than getting fixated on new book formats, let’s keep investing in the ‘not book’ worlds that amplify and enhance reading, build worlds where appropriate and keep solving particular challenges in order to create opportunities. The book needs little solving it seems, but ‘not book’ is an infinite universe we must keep exploring.

So, back to earth – to our permanently spinning and changing planet whose unlikely surface we don’t cling to but run around on. The purpose of the industry around writing and reading remains fixed as a bridge between writers and their readers, not a barrier. It is now a more various industry. Some central attributes have reasserted themselves – bookshops, the printed book, prizes, book events – but much that is familiar is as worthy of innovation as the newer agendas. Shops, print, and new writing are worthy of new thinking as much as technology and consumer-driven change. Perhaps it makes for a more challenging world, but it seems both possible and recognisable in ways that might not have been predicted. We did that. So let’s do what’s next.

Everything changes.

Change is the only normal. But change doesn’t mean the end of everything. As ever T. S. Eliot puts it better than I could in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Perhaps we’ve learned that the Mars of reading is here on the Earth we know, not so much in outer space. We’ve a great deal to discover and explore from where we stand, along with tools that are already in our hands to use. But we’ve got to get better at using them. And if we do that, we’ll still be able to explore from the reassuring fertility of our own planet.