With the London Book Fair ahead of me, and with it a debate on Amazon’s role in the publishing industry, I’ve been asking myself a few questions (which is as weird as it sounds by the way) about our industry.
The question I keep coming back to is culture, specifically the culture that dominates the publishing workforce. Lots has been said about the new skillset that publishers require, but not so much about the new culture publishers require. The one is irrelevant without the other.
For all that ebooks and digital efforts have been garnering attention of late (and increasingly a large share of the revenue and profits) print remains the dominant cultural strain in publishing’s offices and workforces. As an industry and as a workforce we still love the printed book, we admire it above all else and we fetishize it to a crazy degree (I give you things made of books on Pinterest but the evidence abounds).*
What this says to me is that the bulk of those who work in publishing don’t see a future for the book beyond print or if they do, they are not that keen on it. They accept that they must create digital versions of the books they publish, perhaps acknowledge that digital marketing has merit and embrace social media to some degree. But when it comes down to the culture they embrace, they are still much more at home with ink and paper than they are with digital bits. That worries me.
To be clear, I don’t mean just the culture at the top which has shown notable signs of change in recent years, but the culture up and down publishers and in all departments not just publicity and marketing (areas in which, to be fair, change seems to have been embraced) but in editorial and production, in sales and in just about every function a publisher has, at every level. We can still love print (especially as it provides the bulk of sales and profits for most of us) but we must embrace digital wholeheartedly and as more than just the new thing.
The reality of digital change is that we are facing competition from every form of content and entertainment that exists and increasingly (as archives and old forms are adapted to the new media) that EVER existed. For publishers that means that The Guardian and Angry Birds, Facebook and Spotify, the Harlem Shake and The Next Meme are not just our competition on a second by second basis, but that they are all as accessible, if not more accessible, as books and reading are on smartphones and other devices.
By chance, as I wrote this blog, I read this rather fine piece in the Huffington Post by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn which posits that publishers are now technology companies. While I agree with much of what they say, the headline oversells it, publishers are not technology companies, but they are companies working in an industry that has been reshaped and will continue to be reshaped by technology and its application. Publishers are content financiers, curators, shapers and sellers who need to understand and love technology but that doesn't make them technology companies, that may sound like dissembling, but it is not, the world is more grey than black and white.
What it comes down to is that we live in interesting times when digital creation combined with digital distribution and almost omnipresent access are driving convergence and competition across media forms. Without accepting and embracing a culture that looks to digital as a native and increasingly the most important part of our companies and our own workforce and culture, we won't survive to do what it is we love doing, bringing entertainment, beauty, happiness, sadness, joy, knowledge, enlightenment and wonder into the lives of our readers through the words of our writers.**
*I should perhaps note here that I’m as guilty of this as others on one level. Though I am now a digital convert for my own reading, I still buy print books as gifts and objects to adorn my shelves. I doubt that I will ever stop doing that, and I’m not suggesting you should either.
**And make money!
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