Futurebook is a funny thing, but it was only thanks to one of the excellent innovations in the lead up to tomorrow’s conference that I was able to put my finger on the nature of that funniness. For the past few months, The Bookseller has been running an excellent series of five minute manifestos, allowing all those involved to say what they think the various parts of the industry needs. One the the very best of these was Emma Barnes’ Manifesto for Skills. It is both a head shake that the publishing industry lacks coding skills, and a plea for publishers to do something about it. That’s exactly what always feels strange about Futurebook. It’s as if the music industry were just figuring out how to use MP3 players and you were suddenly asked to throw a big conference on “innovative tech in the music industry”. The problem is not so much that publishing does not innovate. It is more, as Barnes suggests, that it cannot. Because it lacks the in-house skills. Its scope for innovation is limited to outsourced often off the peg materials and platforms that it may consider how to repurpose. Of course, this is hardly surprising. Like legal services teams in higher education and NHS accountants, the ability to attract the best is often hamstrung by the lack of purse strings, and few purses have fewer strings than the publishing industry.
All of which is by way of preamble to saying that this is an event in much need of a helping hand celebrating an industry much in need of the same. Which is why another new addition, Monday’s Author Day, was such good news. Curated with TARDISian oversight by the literary world’s favourite Rabelaisian raconteur Porter Anderson, not only did the day’s programme manage to include every conceivable stakeholder in the authoring business, it placed self-publishers on a complete par with their traditionally and hybridly published comrades. And self-publishing is one of the literary world’s few loci of innovation and expertise. Author Day and Futurebook is set up to work perfectly as a membrane to allow for that awfully-coined piece of jargonese, knowledge exchange.
I wasn’t at Author Day – spending most of my literary times poeting these days means conference fees are beyond me – but I followed everything on twitter, and I did meet many of the authors who had been there as they emerged into the dreich London night. From what I saw and heard there was the expected mix of things that pleased and things that left room for improvement. What particularly caught my eye were the panel on diversity, including the extremely fabulous Nikesh Shukla, the presence of Kamila Shamsie, and the inclusion of illustrators and translators on the programme – and Louise Lalaurie, the translator of a new-to-English title from the wonderful transgressive writer Gabrielle Wittkop, no less.
If there was something awry with the programming, it was less in the programme of the day than in the way it fitted within the wider framework of Futurebook. This was a multifarious, multifaceted smorgasboard of voices that felt like a rat-a-tat-tat of plenary addresses. What was missing were the workshops that pulled apart and refleshed the claims and agendas pushed in those talks. Not, of course, the fault of Author Day, but something essential for Futurebook to look at in order to make next year less about making an important statement about the place of the author and actually looking in detail at the author’s worlds, their financial and creative lives, and where the different parts of the book business want to fit around each.
One might sum the day up by saying it is an excellent start. And that would probably be fair. But I hope Futurebook also take some heed of a couple of cautionary notes. We had an Author Lounge space for the first time at London Book Fair in 2012. That was a great first step. In 2013, the newly-instituted Folio Prize opened its doors to self-published authors. That was a great first step. The years since then have seen more of a battle to prop the floodgates ajar than a torrent rushing through them. At some point, and with each passing event the necessary soonness of that some point is exacerbated, first steps have to become if not a mad dash then at least a purposeful march. Interestingly, I wrote in early 2014, after the inaugural London Author Fair, that it felt as though we had moved on from a world in which we all had to position ourselves within a debate to one where we could all just get down to business together. Looking back that, too, was a faltering first step. It seems there are still warinesses and defences and fences between those who populate the literary landscape.
We are all to blame (OK, I will take more of a share than most, but all parties need to take some responsibility). That’s inevitable when resources are squeezed from all sides. In the face of infinite pressure, blame is the infinitely malleable substance. But I don’t think the answer is for us to call for an end to blame. It’s easy to say we’re all in this together, let’s work together to a common end. But that’s poor rhetoric – no ends are truly common. Even to the extent that we are, as literary sorts, “competing” against other media, we do not have a common end – it’s no wonder our industry is underskilled if it really does see other users of technology as a common enemy rather than co-travellers in a quest to enrich the cultural world. Where a group has legitimate worries, it must feel free to express them in its own terms, and it can’t be good for other groups to say “enough, now” to them. The wonderfully rich group of creatives represented on Author Day’s programme cannot bring about a more artistic and fulfilling world for all by gaslighting each other. Argument has to happen.
Disagreement has to happen. And it has to happen in an environment where complaints are heard. If Futurebook really wants authors at the centre of what publishing does, then next year’s structuring needs more thought. Pricing structures need to reflect a parity. And access to platform has to reflect a parity – a message from Author Day to Futurebook is a great start, and great starts are to be welcomed. But the welcome afforded great starts depreciates year on year faster than a smartphone. If Futurebook really wants to get tech, that’s surely a metaphor it will understand.