Predicting the future, 2010 style

When whitefox recently moved offices to Euston I found some paperwork I’d filed away in 2010 from a previous life inside one of those corporate publishing behemoths. Back then, the senior team had been given the task of stepping off the monthly inevitability of reforecasting against budget and instead looking into a crystal ball to see if they could identify what some of the key, defining factors for a large book publisher in 2015 would be. What types of books will do better? Will you be publishing more or less? Will your authors be more or less dependent on you? How will prices have changed and how much of your output will be digital? You get the picture.

It is always amusing, enlightening and faintly embarrassing to look back over your shoulder at what you got wrong and at answers so clearly influenced by your head being firmly lodged in the political context of the time. But we are talking about envisaging a publishing world that is now less than a year from reality. And some of the answers are fascinating.

There is a lot that seems fanciful now. Apple and Google commissioning publishing programmes, Waterstones succeeding online, editors understanding and selecting content based on the nuances of app development. We seemed to think an ageing population would keep buying hardback physical books out of nostalgia, not realising that portability, convenience and an adaptable font size would mean that that demographic would embrace e-readers.

We got some things right. Crime fiction has continued to show a big digital shift, and newspaper review pages have diminished. Some subscription services have emerged. But we are, it seems, still waiting for a revolution in tablet and colour e-readers to impact upon traditional illustrated publishing. Agents have not been consigned to history and replaced by lawyers and deal brokers. Publishers are still looking at ways in which they can improve their 360-degree service offering to stay relevant to authors. And, as Rebecca Smart’s talk at last year’s Futurebook illustrated, the process of taking relevant content to market is still too slow.

All of which proves what, exactly? That when we look into the future, it is human nature that even people who would classify themselves as ‘experts’ within an industry just end up playing wish fulfilment when they look into the future.

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