Keep calm and engage

In his analysis of recent online debates around e-book royalties etc the journalist Porter Anderson upbraids the big publishers for being silent over the big issues of the day. "It’s far easier for the Bermuda-shorted entrepreneurial class to yak its business all day and night than it is for those who were trained to the pinstripe and have corporate overlords who don’t want to hear their business passed around on the street."

He is both right and wrong. I don't know if the New York publishing scene is so very different, but I don't see many pinstripes in the boardrooms of our top publishers, and neither do I find the people who have access to these boardrooms silent on most matters. The ones I meet are deeply engaged with what's going on around them; many of them are working on strategies to meet these challenges; while cognisant that those challenges are in a state of flux. The view of publishing as seen through the prism of twitter or the blogosphere is not an accurate one.

But Porter's frustration is understandable. In many cases the real debates are not held in public; the chief executives are not particularly visible; and the strategies are not always discernible. Journalistic requests to shed some light on proceedings are often rebuffed, or get caught up in the infinite loop of corporate communications.

There are some good reasons for this. As Anderson himself suggests this is an industry that is having to reinvent itself, and that can be a slow and at times bewildering process. "Even with the [Penguin Random House] merger coming in, two oldsters don’t make a new," writes Porter. One chief executive I spoke to recently blanched when I suggested he write a blog, or occasionally tweet: this is not their world. Even when they have engaged, as in the case of Macmillan USA chief executive John Sargent or the Authors Guild's Scott Turow their comments are often derided.

There isn't a neat solution to this. As Anderson acknowledges journalism has been through this shift, the results have not always been positive and the journey has been uncomfortable. Journalists now face a world where their audience not only makes the news, but also tweets about it first. None of this makes the job of the journalist any easier, or necessarily improves the quality of the output.

But the big lesson from journalism is that this won't stop. Bermuda shorts may be optional, but that's about it. As Agent Orange suggests, publishers should now be in the business of selling themselves, not just their books. There is a public space where that happens - every minute of every day.

 

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