I went to Futurebooks 16 and thought some things

Futurebooks is the part of The Bookseller that, unsurprisingly, deals with the future of books. This one day conference was held on December 2nd in London and had three events running concurrently under one roof: Futurebooks, EdTech (about education technology) and an Audiobooks strand.

This was the first conference I’d ever been to in a professional capacity, so that was pretty exciting. I was a little dazzled by the buffet, the free (free!) coffee and heavily-branded tote bag that was thrust into my hand on arrival.

But I got over that.

Books & Video

Everyone says video is the big thing. The first keynote speaker told us that it was a video-first world and I can’t really deny it. People will wait 2 seconds for a video to load and if it doesn’t, they’ll go somewhere else. Shocking. Except not, because that’s exactly how I feel about it. I don’t work in marketing, but I openly mock Youtube adverts that haven’t told me what to product is within the 5 second skip portion.

But what does video meant for books? No-one’s quite sure. I’ve never really understood book trailers, but major publishers invest heavily in the,m, so I guess there must be something to them. Still, it feels like an odd fit to me, like releasing a 7 inch single of music to promote your new mime show. But anyway.

Practical tip was to format video as square, so portrait landscape wasn’t an issue. He then said that this was going to be redundanet soon because of snapchat spectacles and this:

Everyone went “ooh!” at seamless video rotation and orientation changes, without fully appreciating the horror of people wearing cameras on their faces all the time. I’m very much in two minds about this development. The idea of responsive framing is great for handheld amateur video, but I feel like I can hear thousands of professional cinematographers weeping in the background.

I do understand the pull towards video, I just not sure it’s something to be embraced. This probably makes me Canute. Perhaps it’s better to say that I haven’t seen it done well, yet. Like all the scepticism I may express here (and there’s more to come), it’s more a statement that I’m yet to be convinced, but perhaps want to be.

VR, AR & Books

Very much the buzz of the events, even if no-one was quite sure why. All the keynote speakers mentioned it to a greater or lesser extent, and it felt very much that this was being touted as the Next Big Thing.

I didn’t tweet much during the event because it always make me feel like a tit. One of the things I did comment on (and later delete, because I thought perhaps it was a little rude) was that I didn’t understand the rationale for taking a cheap, accessible medium that relies on the user’s imagination and trying to convert it into an expensive, technical one that limits everything to one costly, functionally limited one.

The only crossover I could see between books and VR were that they were essentially solitary experiences. But books can be shared, read aloud and so on, whereas the VR helmet makes it inherently more introverted because unlike a book, which can be read anywhere, the VR process requires you to do the quivalent of lock yourself in a darkened room to experience something.

Augmented Reality (AR) seemed to have more traction and there was some talk by a guy from Carlton Books, which supplements their licenced titles with app interactions that make dinosaurs and whatnot leap out of the page if you view them through your phone/tablet. It looks cool, it’s certainly an attention grabber, but I am dubious about the longevity. Furthermore, I don’t like the idea that this is another part of the world that is being shrunk down to within the frame of a smart screen. It’s not enough to view real life events by shrinking them down to the five inches diagonal widow of your phone, but now you’re supposed to read books through them, too.

At this point, I would also mention of the tech pitches I watched, which was for Novel Effect, which promises to ‘make storytime magic’ with an app that listens to you read aloud and plays an ambient soundtrack and sound effects in time. The response in the room (and by one of the judges) was that this took away one of the most fun aspects of reading to children – namely, making the sound effects yourself. Storytime already is magic, you plum. Adding library music doesn’t do that – stories do.

This is the thing that always gets me about the progress of books. Books are books. I absolutely believe in the idea that you should try and expand your readership beyond just “book people”, but I don’t think jamming shittier versions of other mediums in between your pages are the way to do it. Kids who don’t read aren’t going to be convinced by crappier versions of the games they already have on their phone. I know the argument that it could be considered a gateway, that interest in one book leads to enquiries about others, but I really don’t see that happening in the case of these licensed Jurassic World books.

The final keynote speaker, Jamal Edwards of SBTV, has a much more compelling example of bringing in new readers. His 99p “levels”, released weekly during the school summer holidays show a much better understanding of the marketplace and the resistance to reading. Inserting challenges into the text is a better understanding of gamification than low-poly tyrannosaurs made in Unity 3D.

Mount Improbable

When the team from Penguin won the technical innovation prize, we laughed at them for all wearing what appeared to be company issue uniform of skinny jeans and tight black sweaters.

“Are they supposed to look like penguins?” my boss snarked, while I pointed out that we were only two rows back and they could probably hear us.

Later in the day, they did a presentation about what theyd actually done and – holy shit – I would have given them a prize for that and pretty much everything else I could think of.

For the anniversary of Dawkin’s key books, they produced new editions that use computer code written by Dawkins to demonstrate how evolution works. Updating this to modern day javascript, they not only created a webtoy (found at www.mountimprobable.com), but also used it to generate a different, unique cover for each copy of the book.

This floored me, to be honest. Very cool, both in concept and execution. It made me think I should really get more serious about coding, but I’ve been down that road before and I’m not sure I’m ready for that sort of heartbreak.

Misc

There was a lot of other stuff there, both interesting and not-so. More than anything, I got the sense that it was possible to do exciting things with books (but I sort of knew that already). Overall, I got the sense that the further you stray from the core benefits of books, the less successful you are. Augmented or virtual reality can’t be as powerful as the images you create in your mind.

The future of books is… books.

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