The future of the publishing industry?

Thanks first of all to the organisers of the IC Tomorrow “Meet the Innovators” session organised with the Independent Publishers’ Guild at the BMA this morning. A quick-fire series of entrepreneurs had eight minutes to present their propositions, where possible reserving two minutes for Q&A, so there was no room for slack. Pitches were straight to the point – this is what we do, this is why, this is what we need, to an audience of representatives from smaller publishing houses and literary agencies, and a minority of observers such as myself.

While the offerings were diverse they all started from the same perspective – acknowledging the multi-device, digital, collaborative world we’re moving towards. Most showed facets of products and services that exist already – “Spotify for eBooks” said one tweet, “MMORPG for education” said another. One was built around sharing goals with peers; another, getting new authors to market and disintermediating traditional publishers. Innovation came from how capabilities proven in other domains were being applied to the world of the written word. The ability to search online literary databases from a Kindle for example, or to rent eBooks, or perform semantic analysis, or link QR codes to online resources, or to build communities of readers, each is innovative in its own way, even if it replicates capabilities already used elsewhere.

The fact each inspired feelings of recognition, rather than any Dragon’s Den-esque “I wish I’d thought of that,” is as much an indictment of the state of publishing as an illustration of what could be possible. Don’t get me wrong, I was genuinely impressed by the efforts that have gone into bringing such capabilities closer to fruition – it will  be very interesting to see which ones make the leap from concept to mass market business model, and I in no way underestimate the effort involved.

Equally however, there is an undeniable game of catch-up taking place. Publishing industry nnovation in the broadest sense is hampered by the fact that the industry is only just getting going. Let’s face it, it’s only recently that the idea of digital book versions has really been pushed by publishers. While all evidence suggests it is being widely accepted by readers, mass-market digital music has been around for 25 years or more so we really shouldn’t get too flushed with excitement about mass-market digital books.

This isn’t the place to go into detail about why this is, but it’s worth mentioning that eBooks are still a work in progress. Inherent flaws remain – the lack of an agreed eBook standard between Amazon and everybody else, for example, which is confusing readers and adding unnecessary cost into the content production process. This also means that valuable skills are being used inefficiently, in the the publishing equivalent of re-keying as books are (manually) reformatted to suit the different platforms. There’s a way to go.

These publishing industry developments are necessary, both in terms of both catching up with other parts of the creative and media industries, and arriving at a point where digital written content is seen by all publishers as the norm, rather than an adjunct to print. However, in the future the chances are we will come to see them as getting to the starting gates, providing the foundation upon which real innovation can take place. We started to see signs of this in one of the presentations, the final one as it happened, which came from an organization called Space Bar Interactive.

In the presentation, a digitized book was recognized as one element of an interaction between the content creator and the content consumer: while an important element, it was subordinate to the interaction as a whole. We can perhaps see a similar phenomenon with the likes of JK Rowling’s launch of an interactive web site, which brings together elements of the original (printed) books, the world portrayed by the films and additional content, all to create a more rounded – dare I use the word (JK does) – experience.

While this bodes well, the state of the industry begs the question: what would pre-Gutenberg storytellers, educators and journal-ists make of the abundance of tools and capabilities now available, if they were suddenly transported into the now? Difficult to say but I believe they would see print as just one tool, probably inferior to their preferred approach of direct interaction. They might favour the podcast as a way of capturing a tale for example, using print only as a way of archiving. Or perhaps those who preferred putting pen to paper might still do so, nonetheless profiting from the many different ways that ‘paper’ could now be transmitted to their readership.

All options for communicating a story were, are and will remain valid, but the difference is their relative position in the hierarchy of preferred publishing mechanisms we have currently. Print holds the number one slot in the hearts and minds of publishers, even if digital books are currently outselling print copies by two to one on Amazon. That’s not to say publishers are wrong to hang onto print: just as face to face interaction will never be outmoded, nor will the human desire to have a more tactile reading experience.

The only inaccuracy is the idea that one will supersede the other as king of the hill: print is currently there by nature of the fact that there was no other option, and digital will win for a while merely on the strength of pent-up demand, but in truth both models are equally valid. Just as today’s pitches suggest, future winners will be those who make the right choices about clever combinations of content, formats and media choices based on the needs, desires and contexts of their audiences, and not on some arbitrary “we’ve always done it that way,” or “it’s the future, get with the program” meme.

The bottom line is that there is plenty of innovation to be had – but first we need to build a foundation of capabilities and an understanding of the valid part each can play in how writers and authors can engage with their audiences. As a final point, it didn’t go unnoticed on Twitter that most of the people in the room were using pads, that is, pen and paper, to take notes on what the presenters were saying. While this could be seen as a comment on how quickly (or otherwise) the publishing industry is adapting to new technologies, there is a wider point: that no single mechanism, new or old, will ever be suitable for all needs. If we are to be blessed with multiple choices, the skill will be making them work together, whether digital or paper-based.

The future of the publishing industry?

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