Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Future of Publishing

 I was asked to submit a contribution to 'the future of the book' series of short essays, a blog being compiled by if:book Australia. This was published today at                                   

Over the last twelve to eighteen months the debate over the future of the book has moved through a number of stages. We initially focused on ebook devices and their features, functionalities and sales volumes, particularly when the iPad first appeared; we then moved onto DRM, ‘windowing’ and ebook pricing; then to agency and other supply models; then, when it became obvious that retailers were suffering, onto the critical role of high street booksellers and whether they’d survive and what impact on an emerging ebook industry their possible demise would have.    

Now we’re at the stage of debating the role of publishers, and not just their role, but whether, in a thoroughly digital future, they’d even exist.  Would they not be exposed as analogue relics, rooted to the legacy business models of print, and soon to be cast aside by the inexorable march of digital progress?

‘The entire publishing industry is going down the drain’ according to an executive from Siemens at the World E-Reading Congress in London in early May.

‘Publishing is not dead. It’s more like Wile E. Coyote in the moment before he notices the cliff has dropped away beneath him’, tweeted Australian author James Bradley on May 11.

The panel discussion on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Future of the Book on the ABC on May 17 was telling because it signalled how thoroughly we’ve all now moved on to a much more mature reflection on the issues. It concerned the future of publishing and whether one should be optimistic or pessimistic about the radical, structural shifts taking place in the industry that could well mean the demise of the familiar behemoths that have ruled the book world since Gutenberg.

And then there are the recent, very meaningful, moves by one of the ‘new’ behemoths – Amazon, Apple and Google. Amazon has thrown a cat amongst the pigeons by setting up a number of publishing imprints and hiring an experienced publishing professional to build its own list. Whether this will be a successful financial venture for Amazon is not the point. The fact that they have chosen to do it is the point.

Literary agents, author associations, and many authors themselves have not been slow to register their frustration over the seemingly inflexible, unresponsive and defensive corporate manoeuvres from the big publishers, and many of them are voting with their feet and striking out on their own to best position themselves for the digital future.

I find it fascinating, if not a little sad, that it’s come to this. But publishers really have no-one to blame but themselves.

Humility is not a virtue usually associated with publishers, particularly the majors (frequently referred to as ‘the big six’). Arrogance, yes, but not its usual opposite. The problem is that today, in the midst of a profound digital transition, with outcomes and endpoints intrinsically unknowable and barely amenable to forecasting, arrogance is a habit of mind that publishers need to quickly shed or they will die. When that arrogance is combined with fear, as it always is, it becomes toxic indeed.

Let’s review some of publishing’s wrong moves over the last few years:

It was wrong to respond to Amazon’s aggressive ebook pricing with the Agency model of supply, thus guaranteeing higher and uncompetitive prices. This was a distinctly pro-producer, anti-consumer move as its effect was to disallow consumer-tested pricing at the very birth of a new and exciting industry product.  

It was wrong to bind the new e-tailer behemoths to geographic, territorial restrictions by contract, thus denying non-US consumers access to tens of thousands of important new titles upon their first release. (There are far better and consumer-friendly ways of dealing with territorial rights sales).

It was wrong to impose on authors a maximum royalty of 25% of net receipts on ebook sales. (35% plus is far more justified).

In Australia, publishers were wrong to oppose the abolition of our parallel importation restrictions which serve to protect publisher over-pricing and under-servicing in our local market. (This issue never had anything to do with territorial copyright, but that was the way publishers framed it – very successfully unfortunately).

Australian publishers are wrong to continue over-pricing when the Australian dollar is so strong against the US dollar and UK pound. And they are wrong to argue that the GST should be foisted on booklovers – their customers – if they chose to order online. (Publishers need to be hyper-responsive to consumer sentiment, and dramatically lower prices accordingly to keep faith).

These are only some of the ways publishers, globally and locally, have and are reacting to new, emerging paradigms – with fear, defensiveness, arrogance and protectionist sentiment. It is not the way into the future.

But the simple fact is that publishers are terrified, as are most businesses, of the digital future – perhaps not visions of that future, but the ugly, messy, transitional process of getting there.  For they are being required to submit themselves and their organisations to a radical process of refinement, akin to jumping head first into a giant threshing machine, and trusting they’ll emerge alive, pared down to their essence, and thoroughly renewed.    

All the analogue baggage of the print business that made them powerful players – marketing and sales machines, distribution might, wholesale/retail connections – all this has to be shed, perhaps slowly, perhaps quickly, but certainly painfully. This amounts to losing 20-30% or more of current overheads, and many staff.

What will remain is the pared down, distilled essence of publishing that most publishers today have long forgone, forgotten, and always outsourced – editorial.  

Over the decades, under the pressure of mergers, acquisitions, restructurings, and downsizings, when Big Retail has squeezed margins to the thinnest imaginable, our standards as publishers have been lowered. Our regard for the quality of the text has too frequently been off our radar screen. Our respect for the old, intense, creative relationships; the old skills and craft of recognising, developing and editing talented authors; the ancient role of challenging, clarifying, re-writing, querying, red-lining and binning. We’ve been absent, cold and unsupportive.

Perhaps I’m naive in thinking that this serious, collaborative, sympathetic profession of editing will be re-born as the core of publishing. But I do know this: people are sick to death of unedited prose – the knotty, clotted, jargon-infested illiterate bilge that clogs our time and space. How refreshing and joyous it is to read clear, lucid, beautifully balanced sentences that sing and instantly communicate. And how powerful it is to be moved and spiritually expanded by stories brilliantly told.

Unless publishers rediscover this essence of what publishing is all about they will have little to offer and will certainly be squeezed out of the value equation.  

But if they do, and if they bring all their design, production, marketing, metadata, administrative and management skills to the ancient process of ‘making public’ the words and ideas of the best of the best amongst us, then they deserve to, and certainly will, flourish.