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Q&A with DBW 2019 speaker Charlotte Abbott (Founder, FutureProof Content Strategy)

I recently had the privilege of sitting down with publishing industry veteran and Digital Book World 2019 speaker Charlotte Abbott. She's the founder and director of FutureProof Content Strategy, and works with clients to create stories that drive results. Check out her interview below - enjoy.

Let’s start with a summary of your publishing career.

Are we still in publishing? My evolution from book editor to business journalist to content and audience strategist has taught me to avoid using that word, even though I was certain about what it meant when I was an assistant editor at HarperCollins.

What drew you to that job?

When I was 22, books seemed like bridges to more diverse worlds and deeper understanding than I could find in other media. Becoming a book editor taught me how to identify the most compelling stories and how to sell them to specific audiences. I was lucky to work with editors like Rachel Klayman, who is now Barack Obama’s editor, and authors like Christine Vachon, the pioneering LGBTQ film producer, and Bari Ellen Roberts, who took on Texaco for discrimination and won a landmark class action settlement.

I enjoy being at the forefront when times are changing, so my skills and definitions of success have evolved a lot over the last few decades. What I love the most about my current work as a content strategist is jumpstarting conversations with business and consumer audiences, using real-time market data and analytics. It’s a natural outgrowth of the years I spent at Publishers Weekly, where I cut my teeth interviewing leaders across the industry, writing hundreds of business stories, and breaking news in our daily email newsletter, under serious pressure to find new online audiences because the weekly print magazine model was imploding.

The common thread is that I’ve always worked with thought leaders to build loyal audiences with compelling stories. After all these years, I still see myself as a writer and editor with database tendencies.

Why did you start FutureProof Content Strategy?

At a time when many people in publishing were afraid of digital disruption, I kept seeing opportunities to start fresh dialogues with emerging audiences using new tools. When startups like NetGalley and blue chip brands like National Public Radio and the Brooklyn Public Library started biting on my proposals, I made the leap to fulltime consulting.

At FutureProof, my mission is to help innovators and experts grow their audiences with stories that drive results. Clients come to me when they have valuable market insights or products to share with specific audiences. Some sell to other businesses, and some sell direct to consumers. My clients are aware that their products need some explaining and look to me for help with shaping memorable stories that will activate both online and live audiences.

What has been your biggest success?

One of my earliest successes moved the needle not only for my client, but for the industry. When NetGalley was starting up, publishers liked the idea of a software platform that would deliver electronic book galleys quickly and securely to booksellers, librarians, and book reviewers because it would reduce the cost of printing & shipping paper galleys. But publishers were still skeptical about whether electronic reading technology was good enough to take off, and It didn’t help that NetGalley’s first owners ran out of venture capital.

Luckily, NetGalley was bought by Fran Toolan, a longtime publishing tech player with vision and credibility. He realized NetGalley needed a strong identity, so he hired me to start a blog about e-reading and digital change with another consultant, Kat Meyer. We also launched a weekly Twitter chat, and invited industry sages, hotshot journalists and rabble-rousing librarians to join our dialogue. Suddenly industry gatekeepers who had been siloed for decades were exchanging ideas and finding common ground on a weekly basis. Within a year, many had signed up for the service and were openly identifying with NetGalley as an important changemaker. Eleven years later, the industry wouldn’t function without electronic galleys, and NetGalley is still a key marketing and publicity platform that has expanded from the U.S. to Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the UK.

What has been your biggest challenge?

When the ebook distributor INscribe Digital hired me to raise awareness about their innovative tools and services for optimizing ebook sales to digital retailers, they had two major challenges. First, they were building their brand from scratch while competing with four better-established companies, starting with the Ingram Content Group. Second, their San Francisco office was almost completely off the radar of industry tastemakers in New York, even though their top three executives were respected industry veterans.

I knew that the key to winning trade media attention and industry respect would be for INscribe’s top executive, Anne Kubek, to join other industry leaders in dialogue. Conferences like Digital Book World were an obvious place for her to do that, but I would have to find a way around the pay-to-play game for vendors like INscribe, which had a steep price tag. I would also need to help INscribe keep reaching out to prospects and converting viable clients while we carried out this larger strategy.

After three and a half years, we surpassed our major objectives when INscribe sold the company to Independent Publishers Group, helped by repeated speaking appearances at four annual conferences by Anne Kubek and her colleague Kelly Peterson, and regular trade media mentions. At every turn, we leveraged our strategic presentations, whitepapers and social media campaigns to grow INscribe’s email list and convert viable new clients. To sidestep the cost of speaking as a vendor, we packaged educational panels that were moderated by INscribe execs and capitalized on their connections to speakers from Google, Kobo and Overdrive. With sustained effort, it proved to be a winning formula.

I love your tagline "stories that drive results." That’s the essence of the intersection of publishing and marketing, and an important piece of Digital Book World's agenda.

What’s the difference between a story that drives results for a company or an individual, versus one that doesn't?

Staying very focused on what your customers want, and delivering it when they need it, is the best way to convey the personality of a company and to keep customers coming back. Focusing on customers has to be a company’s top priority to begin with – no clever marketing story can compensate for it. NetGalley and INscribe Digital both forged close customer relationships and delivered excellent customer service. That’s why I was confident that we could grow their client base by sharing their success stories with key audiences, both in person and online.

Which emerging technologies emerging excite you most from a publishing standpoint: AR, VR, voice assistants and smart speakers, autonomous vehicles, 5G? Which ones do you think will best support "stories that drive results"?

I love hearing stories about children asking smart speakers to read a story when their caregiver is busy, or choosing a book for Alexa to read, and encouraging their entire family to tune in and relax together. I’d like to see some publishing players create pro-active marketing campaigns around that. I also think the publishing industry is in an interesting position to speak out on behalf of every family’s right to privacy, when stories come out about remote users secretly monitoring conversations through smart speakers.

When it comes to AR and VR, I’m most captivated by multimedia projects that expand our definition of what a book can me. One of the most interesting is Masters of the Sun: The Zombie Chronicle, released by the hip hop band The Black Eyed Peas at the end of 2018. It’s a graphic novel published by Marvel Comics that stands on its own, or can be viewed with an AR app that plays narration by Marvel’s Stan Lee and a musical score from composer Hans Zimmer, while 3D glasses make animations pop off the page. The band also partnered with Oculus VR on a 90-minute “transmedia sensory experience” based on Masters of the Sun. But it’s not like a video game or a movie. It’s built more like a comic book that allows users control the pace of the images and music as they move from one panel to the next. That is pure genius!

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