The future of publishing is in the cupboard under the stairs
A new book provides students and entry-level professionals with a comprehensive guide to the publishing businessThe future of publishing? You know it's around somewhere. You didn't throw it away or put it in the loft or pack it in a box and give it to Oxfam. It's probably under the stairs.
Under the stairs is a strange place. It's where some people hid from Hitler's bombs, others were punished by being locked in that little cupboard and many of us used it as a private hidey hole, a place for escaping, dreaming, reading. Mostly, though, it's a place for all those things we expect to need sometime soon, and there's nowhere else to put them.
One of things I have under the stairs is a memory of a course we ran at Oxford Polytechnic in the 1990s called "The Future of the Book". Some of the ideas that informed the course (McLuhan, Toffler, MacBride and others) seem just as prescient now that we can judge them against the developments of the last two decades. The imagination and creativity of the students was such that scores of futuristic ideas emerged, many of them seemed outlandish and some of them just plain daft (if entertaining). But a lot of these publishing fantasies came true before the next year's class; some took a little longer to be developed in the real world; and some are just now being commercialized (do I have to say monetized?), although mostly without the best features of those student prototypes in the 1990s!
Over the past twenty years, I have, like many people, continued to wonder about the future of publishing, and in the course of writing The Publishing Business: from P-Books to E-Books (due from AVA Books today) I again had to try and make sense of how people coming into publishing or starting a publishing course might prepare themselves for their future career. The book covers the many elements that make up modern publishing practice, and explains how developments in the recent past have affected all parts of publishing from editorial, designs and production, to marketing, sales, distribution and finance. In all this I wanted to identify what remained fundamental in publishing, and what knowledge, skills and personal qualities are essential to forging a successful career in the business. In the process, I concluded that there are some things in publishing that remain reasonably constant in spite of the many great changes that have occurred in the industry in recent years.
First, it's worth remembering that most publishing has actually been digital for quite some time. Writing and design is done using commonly available software; publishing on the Internet is now old hat (I remember publishing innovations coming from Xerox PARC in the 1970s); e-books are now just another format looking for market share; and self-publishing is available to anyone with a computer, access to a server and a bit of money. Digital? Let's get over it!
Publishing content has not changed much either. Genres remain much the same, and formats are still essentially restricted to the two dimensions of flat page and flat screen (except for pop-up books and 3D screen imaging), and this applies to text, static and moving images. We have more audio now, but not that many publications have holograms yet.The adoption of gamefication and new interactive technologies has shifted publishing and distribution of texts from print and static electronic formats into other media and onto a wider variety of platforms. But is this any more disruptive and innovative than, say, the development of Open University materials was decades ago?
The idea of publishing as user experience (UX), the way someone feels when reading or handling a given book, is certainly nothing new. The design, the weight, the feel and look of paper and board have always been judged alongside the words and images themselves, and it would be a strange publisher who didn't always think about how a publication was received (or experienced). Publishers have always looked at what they produce with an eye to how booksellers, reviewers and readers react to both form and content, and, in spite of current hand-wringing about losing control, they didn't actually manufacture printed products any more than they now produce e-readers, tablets and application software.
As for the marketing and distribution end, the way customers get to hear of and find (ie discover) a given publication has always relied on some sort of structured information (ie metadata), and customers have usually acquired publications through a varied supply chain that existed separately from the publisher. Of course everyone coming into publishing needs to understand this, but does the use of these new terms really indicate the sort of paradigm shift that various publishing futurologists would have us believe? The same goes for other words. "Dynamic" – surely publishing has always been a game of revision, re-edition, and adaptation, and print publications are not as unchanging and monolithic as digital mavens would sometimes have us believe. "Curation" - isn't this really just a slightly more nuanced understanding of what the publisher and commissioning editor have always done? It's still important to have people in publishing who exercise judgment, experience, vision and integrity while struggling to pay the bills.
Lastly there is the current concern about what sort of corporations and industries control publishing. Heaven forbid that non-publishers, booksellers, media companies, or other digital hobgoblins should decide what happens in publishing companies.There's nothing new here. Under the stairs I have memories of working for a publisher that was owned by a US shipbuilder, another that was part of a global office machine manufacturer, various large intergovernmental agencies and small NGOs, as well as two very different innovative entrepreneurs: one was an engaging intellectual who pioneered the reprinting of important cultural landmark publications and other copyright free works, while the other was a famously unpredictable and megalomaniac media mogul. All of these publishers produced some ground-breaking stuff, some run-of-the-mill publications, and some dross. Future publishing businesses, whoever owns them, will be the same.
So what is the future of publishing? Just like the past in many, many respects, except that those inside and outside seem excessively worried about a number of things that lie outside of their control. Publishing has been put on the back foot, worrying about how to adapt to what are seen as threats, and it's time to take back some of the ground that has been lost. A consequence of the perceived upheavals in publishing has been disorientation, and publishers seem to have forgotten that there is a point to publishing other than survival and profit. As the great independent publisher Marion Boyars wrote in 1988 (another voice from under the stairs): "this money mania has cast a mantle of cynicism, gloom and despondency over the kind of publishing that interests me".
The Publishing Business: from P-Books to E-Books provides students and publishing newcomers with knowledge and skills they will require for their careers in contemporary publishing, but it also presents a broader context in which they can develop a pride in their work and a sense of purpose. I think publishing needs to refocus on the importance of and respect for people (authors, suppliers, readers, employees), and to revitalize thinking on publishing propriety, censorship (and self-censorship), intellectual property, and other knotty legal, social and moral issues.
Publishing can learn two lessons from the banks and the tabloid press. To do the job well you need attention to detail, integrity, enthusiasm, and you would do well to focus on value rather than monetization, substance rather than celebrity, people rather than power. That's the future I want to see for publishing, and, let's face it, I bet you do too.
After working with a variety of specialist publishers in the UK, US and Ireland, Kelvin Smith developed and taught publishing BA and MA courses at university level. For many years he was engaged in supporting the development of publishing as a key factor in African development and still maintains an active interest in publishing development on the continent. He now spends some of his time writing and talking about publishing and gives advice to a few people who ask for it.
The Publishing Business: from p-books to e-books is published by AVA, price £26.95. Further details at the AVA website