The Future of the Book Business: A Classicist’s View

There are lots of articles coming out at the moment which discuss ‘the future of publishing’, but none from a Classicist. Surprising, I know. I’m not even a very good one, but my enjoyment of the rise and fall of great institutions is indisputable and I think I can bring something useful to the debate.

The historical parallel which comes most strongly to mind as I follow the evolution of the publishing industry is that of 4th-century Greece, when the major city states (Athens, Thebes and Sparta) were engaged in a near-constant round of wars with each other. Meanwhile, Philip of Macedon was in the north whipping his country into shape and developing a new style of warfare. The Greeks did not see Macedonia as a threat because it had until recently been an undeveloped backwater full of barbarians, and so it was allowed to grow unchallenged until Philip and then Alexander were ready to move in and conquer them all.

Sound familiar? Not so much for the inter-fighting, but the complacency bred of contempt certainly rings some bells. It seems that the traditional publishing industry, faced with the twin threats of Amazon and self-publishing, has reacted in much the same way as the Greeks in the 4th century, first with oblivion and/or denial that such a threat exists, followed by supreme confidence that these young upstarts smelling of shop will never overtake them. As a result, many big publishers have not moved nearly fast enough in developing their digital strategy or, better still, integrating digital into their overall strategies.

Last month, Joe Konrath published a blog called Amazon Will Destroy You, explaining why traditional publishers deserve to wither and die. General consensus on the web was that he made some valid points but in such an obnoxious manner that it was hard not to hope publishers would raise their game if only to shut him up.

We have since seen several high-profile stories making a case for the continued existence of traditional publishers and agents (Ian Rankin, Anthony Horowitz) and it has become clear even to this publishing novice that, however easy it is to criticise the industry for being resistant to change, no-one but the most ill-informed is suggesting that their function is obsolete. Last year Amanda Hocking gave a very reasoned explanation for why she signed up with a publisher and last week Kerry Wilkinson outlined the benefits of having an agent. I’m sure we’ll continue to see similar blogs from successful self-published authors and Kindle millionaires, simply because publishers and agents are still good at performing their key roles.

The real question is, with their wealth of experience and skills, why publishers aren’t putting up more of a fight, both on the PR front and on a practical level. Publishers don’t have to justify their existence to readers, but they increasingly need to fight to win the authors who could choose to self-publish or be tempted by the 70% royalties from Amazon. So, what should they be doing? Allow me to speculate.

ISSUE 1. What are the publishing industry’s core strengths?

Experienced editors who can develop ideas as well as improve writing

Contacts within the industry

Promoting titles: experience and expertise in marketing and publicity.

The infrastructure to deal with the fiddly bits (production, selling rights, design)

Funds for providing advances

As a self-published author you could do without some of these and muddle through on the others, but as a package this is pretty good.

ISSUE 2. Where is the industry currently going wrong?

Assuming that Amazon and self-publishers are putting out shoddy products and the reading public will come down on the side of quality. Kindle sales beg to differ.

Fixating on trying to preserve the printed book, which is quite worthwhile and generally being done well, but not if it is paired with the neglect of ebook standards.

Being transfixed by tech companies claiming to offer the future of books. There is not enough digital expertise within publishers, so they are easily distracted by flashy concepts such as IDEO’s Nelson, Coupland and Alice when they should be refining their basic digital product.

ISSUE 3. What should publishing be doing to survive?

Take digital seriously for a start. There is still an underlying belief (hope?) that people will never give up the tactility of books, but I bet there were people saying ‘I couldn’t imagine not hand-writing letters, it’s all about the feel’ when typewriters came along. Publishers can play up the qualities listed in ISSUE 1, fix the points in ISSUE 2 and still just be treading water. It’s not enough any more to make ebooks alongside the printed books and convert the backlist into ebooks. As Mike Shatzkin suggests in Digital Book World, the book business is in the process of splitting into three: publishers need to think far ahead in order to stay in the game, and if they don’t like the way things are going they need to offer a convincing alternative. FlipBacks was a decent idea, though the fact the website no longer works suggests it didn’t really take off.

Be smarter about the digitalisation of books and apply their knowledge of book production to ebooks, from the design to the marketing. There have been a couple of interesting articles this year which question publishers’ determination to digitalise their entire lists: Tom Gold on books that should not become ebooks and Nick Harkaway’s commentary on the undiscriminating way publishers are deploying technology.

Think bigger. Instead of trying to preserve the printed book, which is not going to die out in our lifetime, publishers should be trying REALLY HARD to get more people reading, especially children. Who cares if we still have kids 20 years from now who love the smell of books? It would be better for the book business and everyone in general if more people were avid readers. More than publishers need to be challenging Amazon do they need to support libraries, aggressively.

Think for themselves, with an open mind. Publishers have all the knowledge and resources they need to make some shrewd guesses about the future of the book and influence it. We haven’t seen book enhancements used to their full potential yet, possibly because most publishers haven’t thought about why they are doing it. How about an intelligently enhanced fiction book, with slideshows of the villain’s documents, video interviews with characters and interactive maps?

Rethink the structure of the company. Digital has taken over so much of our personal lives, so why do we pretend otherwise in the office?

In conclusion, publishers need to become more ambitious, thinking bigger and in the longer-term. It doesn’t have to be, as Horowitz suggests, authors and publishing trundling along together towards extinction, and nor do they have to ditch what makes them work in order to become huge profit-making businesses like Amazon. The industry just needs to wake up and start drawing on all its resources before those pesky Macedonians start heading south.

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