Publishing Now: The Golden Age [REPORT]


Tahira Rahemtulla is one of the City University project leaders for Publishing Now 2011. A week on from the big event, Tahira reports on happenings over the weekend…

‘Publishers and would-be publishers must be equally prepared to face the future and become not just instruments of publication but instigators and innovators in their own right.’

Adrian Moore, A Short History of Future Publishing, 1972.

Last weekend saw the first summit for the conjunctive conference between City University London and BookMachine, organized by a dedicated team of students in the master’s programme at City.

Structured as a debate on Friday night and a full-day conference on Saturday, the event focused on discussion about how innovation has changed the industry and where we can expect the changes to lead us in the near future.

With a total of 14 speakers and 104 attendees over the course of two days, the event kicked off with a full house at the Boadicea, which highlighted a live Twitter feed to involve comments from those too shy to physically voice them – (ahem, ahem, you know who you are). The debate, chaired by City University’s own Mary Ann Kernan, featured four professionals from the industry: Simon Appleby from Bookswarm, Oliver Brooks from CompletelyNovel, Eamonn Carey from Edelman Digital, and Suzanne Kavanagh from Skillset. These four brave debaters stepped up to the plate knowing neither what they’d be talking about, nor which side they’d be forced to take.

The first topic of debate was “It is the time for the instant gratification generation: we want it all, we want it NOW”. Obviously, because the Digital Age enables us to buy, watch, or listen to anything we want when we want it, we’ve become spoiled in our need and want for speed. Members of the audience argued that books cannot provide instant gratification because they still require the consumer to take the time to read the material. But doesn’t the issue of instant gratification apply more often to acquisition of the product, than to a final state of satiation?

Among the most recent innovative movements in the publishing industry, the most controversial, it would seem, is self-publishing. Is self publishing devaluing the book? This topic fed a lot of debate among the audience, physical and digital. Some insist that the plurality is a good thing, because it enables more choices for both the writer and consumer. Others said that the need for a real publisher is evident in successful self-published authors turning to publishers. But does an increase in self-publishing diminish the (not-always-effective) filtering system the publishing industry has provided all this time, or is publishing really just another facet in freedom of speech? Should it be?

Finally, we decided to make the evening even more uncomfortable for our debaters by choosing sides for them in the last debate: “We don’t need no innovation!” Poor Suzanne had to resort to using her laptop, from which she was Tweeting throughout the whole event, to help her argument in support of the above statement. And despite the almost unanimous vote against the motion, she and Simon held up their arguments well, incorporating several tweets that noted the irony of the longstanding term “novels”.
After drinking to the victors, we moved on to the main event: Saturday’s conference.

Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury, started off the event by giving a brief history of publishing, discussing the move to digital. Fear has come to be replaced by embracing innovation, not just in producing things for a digital platform, but by influencing and improving production through digital means, as was and is done, for example, for the Oxford English Dictionary by my alma mater, the University of Waterloo. (Water, Water, Water! Loo, Loo, Loo!)

Joanna Rahim, from the Galton Lab, talked about the move of texts, literary and other, to the digital platform via mobile devices, with author Dr Richard Barnett. Innovation like this can connect texts to places with mobile storytelling, and can be further enhanced by audio applications, as Sophie Sampson of explains. Some tweeters argue about the divide this may create between those with access and understanding to use these devices, and those who can either not afford them or lack the skills to take advantage of them. Others argue that digital applications like this can enable the consumer to really entrench him or herself in the location being explored, with the help of another sensory guide.

With Gavin Summers, of Hodder Education, and Anna Lewis, of CompletelyNovel and ValoBox, talk turned to the influence of innovation on content; more specifically, how content develops through closer connections between the writer, the publisher, and the consumer. Though this may enable the industry to better deliver what the customer wants, is that a wise way to employ innovation? What about the texts that we, as the consuming populace, don’t yet know we want? I wonder whether the results could ever be conclusive enough to properly direct what is published in the consumer’s interest, without getting too Big Brother.

Design for digital platforms is important to catch consumers and promotion, as Dean Johnson of Brandwidth and Oliver Brooks of CompletelyNovel and ValoBox impress on us. Without good support of digital applications, it’s easy to get lost in the array of choices. The digital market has expanded so rapidly, to meet such a wide variety of consumer needs, that innovation for text is crucial. As I had mentioned in an earlier article, there are so many digital platforms to lose ourselves in, either for social purposes, educational needs, or simply for entertainment, that text needs to be revitalized, and can be effectively achieved through electronic mediums.

Bobby Nayyar, of Limehouse Books, had a successful day of book sales as he discussed the changes to the cost of print publishing; innovation enables publishers to print at a cheaper price, and therefore to enable a more competitive price to consumers who are increasingly drawn to digital books.

Mary Ann Kernan, of City University London, walked the audience through the historical art of print, reminding us of the romance behind reading in print. This sort of emotional connection to the physical appreciation of text seems to be exclusive to print. But is this just the case now, or is it because print texts have become nostalgic works of art to be admired, not used? Then again, thanks to digital innovations in production and collaboration, printers can create books to publisher specifications, enabling them to create books with not only aesthetic appeal, but to reintroduce the ideology and stature of owning books and collections, as has been done recently with publishers like Penguin. Who doesn’t love pretty books?!

Alastair Horne, of Cambridge University Press, used a geographical analogy to demonstrate the changes in the publishing industry, and much of the audience was intrigued by the culturally-influenced perspective. Are the digital changes enabling a monopoly of the market? Members of the audience voiced their concerns that maybe it was time to take texts straight to the bookshops, avoiding the middlemen altogether, but has that already been achieved by Amazon’s recent steps to becoming a publisher?

Innovation in publishing is essential, an inevitable step towards progression. Though the digital markets are being expanded and improved, it’s important that print and text be kept current and innovated. Innovation encourages constant improvement, and holds a great deal of responsibility for inspiring creatively and educationally. As (future) publishers, we must bear that responsibility for the consumers, and we now face the time to make decisions: fight the giants, or grow with them?

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