LBF vote shows that publishers are still relevant

A vote on whether publishers will become irrelevant was won comprehensively by those arguing for the publishers at a panel discussion held at the London Book Fair, but not before there were a series of heated exchanges between the delegates (and audience), who included Profile founder Andrew Franklin, Bloomsbury's executive director Richard Charkin, the author Cory Doctorow, and technophile James Bridle.

Doctorow remarked on the amount of work publishers contracted to third-parties and questioned, "why do we need publishers to simply pay a bunch of other companies to do work on behalf of an author". But Franklin said that while digital meant self-publishing was easy, it did not mean authors could replicate all the work a publisher did. "All of the tasks publishers do, you can do yourself. Equally if you have an ailment you can do that yourself, including operating on yourself, but I don't recommend trying it at home, exactly the same is true of publishing."

Franklin angered some in the audience with a series of disparaging remarks about authors who had to self-publish: "free is far too much to pay for the overwhelimg majority of books self-published, you can't even give them away." And: "If you self publish on the internet, you might as well not bother, you will be silent."

Both Charkin and Franklin pointed to the health of the London Book Fair as evidence that publishing was still vital, with Franklin adding: "The reason there are lots of slightly forlorn authors clutching manuscripts at this fair is because they have tried it themselves and it hasn't worked."
 Franklin said that so long as publishers provided a service that connected readers to authors, they would remain in business. "The job of publishers is to persuade readers that they should part with money to read an author's work," he said.

But both admitted that publishing had to change. Charkin said it had to begin marketing "24/7", and improve its speed of production: "The average speed of geting a manuscript and publishing it is 12 months, and if I have to pick one thing to get better at, it would be that." Franklin also conceded that publishing was not in a "healthy state", and he warned that "some publishers will go bankrupt this year".

Doctorow argued that publishers had been prevented from proving their "obsolescence" because as an industry it wasn't big enough to bring in "stupid laws", as happened in the music business. But he attacked the PA's Richard Mollet, saying he found it incredible that Mollet could argue on the BBC that e-books could not be owned by consumers, saying that wars had been fought over the principle that books could be owned by readers. "To tell someone that books can no longer be owned, does not make you obsolete, it makes you an enemy of publishing, of books and authors."

Bridle said the publishers needed to reclaim the high ground of reading, and needed to understand social reading. "If publishers are not yet irrelevant, if they don't act soon, they will be."

But the audience didn't agree.

At the end of the session, 201 voted against that proposition that publishers would become irrelevant, just 45 agreed. At the beginning of the panel the numbers were 39 for, with 176 against.

As is being pointed on Twitter already: the voting was perhaps skewed by the nature of the audience and where the vote took place!



Boris Akunin disagrees

I had to leave this event early to moderate a session with huge Russian author Boris Akunin, also joined by a prominent Russian digital publisher and an ebook retailer from Russia.

After a robust presentation explaining the innovations that he himself was driving, and the state of inaction from his publishers, Akunin asked the publisher on the panel what value a publisher could add to justify his role (ie the publisher) in 2011.

By his own admission the publisher said that there was very little that he could do for an author of Akunin's stature, and that he was better off going on his own.

Quite an admission and one that I think is an interesting counterpoint to this (lop-sided) debate, and the recent Cookson / WME and other stories of "disintermediation".

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