One of the more interesting things I took from the London Book Fair Digital Conference a month or so ago was how publishers treat digital publishing within their own companies. Sitting in Earls Court on a day filled with sun, nothing screaming across the sky, just an airborne toxic event hanging over us, there was good conversation and several excellent presentations. In the cab that took me to the HarperCollins party where "real" publishing was being talked about, I wondered what was different about digital publishing?
I am hardly a digital geek. I have an iPhone and that’s about it. I’d never read a submission or a book on any ‘device’ and doubt I ever will. I prefer scribbling on a page, as many editors do. I read news, reviews, features, Twitter stuff and web pages on my phone. I might think of reading a story: I would probably even pay for reading a story or an extract. Over the last year I’ve realized I have, as an agent, really to engage with the digital world, and I hope I have. As Vicky Barnsley said this week we should stop talking about a digital future as we’re in the digital now.
But: what’s different about digital publishing? The answer should be: nothing. It’s a fact that we talk about digital and traditional publishing and we need to stop that now. One of my frustrations is that many publishers seem to keep editors away from digital discussions, leaving contracts and "digital" departments to take things on. I met a writer at the Book Fair who had talked to a corporate digital supremo. The hint had come that "digital" publishing would be better without editors. Many of the editors I’ve worked with in the last twenty years roll their eyes at the digital bollocks they now have to consider. From an agent’s perspective, I want a publisher to have a view as to how to publish a book, and the editor should be intrinsic to those discussions.
From where I sit, digital provides the publishing industry with a new platform, creates new formats. Just as Allen Lane created the paperback in 1936, we now have digital editions. On e-readers, phones, Kindles, iPads, you name it. It’s here, and more is coming. But it’s not the future of the book, it is another future. Anyone who thinks the book is going to die is cuckoo.
Publishing is being driven to a new evolution through technological revolution where the consumer of other products will demand new things from our industry, will seek to read writers and their words (and let’s not call that ‘content’). In these blogs I want to touch on a few ideas, developments, stuff I’ve noticed in the industry. But to begin with I thought I’d lay down some three statements I’ve read in the last month - to get the conversation going – with thoughts of my own.
- “In the digital world, it is possible for authors to publish without publishers. It is therefore incumbent on us to prove our worth to authors every day.” Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, quoted in The New Yorker last month. Discuss. I’d suggest one of the ways was for publishers to show authors they take digital publishing seriously. Contractually promise them e-copies of their book. Give the ISBN for the digital editions.
- “Nothing is stopping publishers from putting apps for books on iPhones. There are fifty million iPhones in the world. That’s a great customer base.” Andrew Savikas, O’Reilly Media’s vice-president for digital initiatives, again quoted in The New Yorker. Again, discuss. I'd suggest we grasp these opportunities and use them to engage the consumer—perhaps advertise, as Canongate did with the Pullmann novel, that the fact the book is a hardback, an audio book, an e-book, an app.
- “Make an e-book and publish it in iBooks. Do you think you need a publisher for this? where is the value they create?” A blogger called conlad on bnet.com (who, presumably, sees even less value in a literary agent). I’d like to say Ignore, but Discuss as we will have to do again. One of our friend conlad’s comments included this: “In the Kindle case, or in iBooks (in the hyphotetical [sic] case you get approved), will a writer still need a publisher to get the book out?”
Which only goes to show that, hypothetically, writers may still need spelling lessons, or even copy-editors. Even agents and publishers.
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