Sunday, January 15, 2012

The way ahead for publishing - The media and the market for books are in flux in the age of ebooks and Amazon, but publishers still have a vital role, says Faber's chief executive

Two publishers talk business in an oversize replica of a book at the Frankfurt book fair. Photograph: Frank Rumpenhorst/AP

The media and the market for books are in flux in the age of ebooks and Amazon, but publishers still have a vital role, says Faber's chief executive

2011 was a dramatic year for the UK books industry. Waterstones changed ownership and leadership. Ebook sales grew to around 7% of the general books market, with WHS Kobo and Apple emerging alongside the dominant Kindle, which had a major Christmas. Agents set up publishing endeavors, publishers created successful apps and writers published themselves. The contentious debate about a fair royalty rate for ebook sales continued, and Amazon set up its own publishing arm.

There's a riot of cross-dressing going on; a scramble as roles are redefined by usefulness, not legacy. What does all this mean for the Olympic year of 2012? Are we breasting the tape after a sprint from the old to the new, or are we yet even to hear the bell on a long-distance test of endurance?

In my view, while 2011 may have signalled the beginning of the end of the era of publishers-with-access-to-the-mass-market as the dominant model for book publishing, it did not signal an end to the opportunity presented by writing or publishing more generally.

Between 1680 and 1770, publishing in Britain was revolutionised – by radical politics and religion, changes in the law, shifting formats and the breaking of a monopoly on granting copyrights held by the Stationers Company. Up to that point, booksellers controlled the market, printers were strictly regulated and the government legislated to suppress the printing of radical ideas. It's not hard in retrospect to pick a side in this argument. The freedom to write is paramount, and it should be supported by the creation of audience and value (a living for writers) through excellent publishing. Eventually, the status quo was challenged and changed, opening up the thriving industry we enjoy today.

But now, as then, control of the market – expressed mainly by publishers' access to the mass market – has been undone to some degree, this time by the digital revolution. What's up for grabs, as it was in the 18th century, is the significant opportunity to be valuable to writers and readers at a time of great change. Publishing is what happens when writing journeys between author and reader; it is vital in creating an audience and value for a writer's work, and therefore of great importance to our culture. I'm not so interested in publishers, even though I run one, but I am interested in what it means to publish excellently in this new world.

So what might good publishing in the 21st century involve? There are several things at which publishers will need to excel; some new, some old. These include:

– The ability to imagine the life of a copyright in three dimensions, from book, to ebook, to app, to audio, to enhanced versions including extra content. This, along with the ability to do so dynamically as technology and behaviour change rapidly, will be crucial.

– A focus on the consumer, rather than the book trade. Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.

– Excellent communication with authors and readers (not just trade and media). This comes in many forms, some well-established. Social activity goes for offline as well as online. There's a reason that the publishing lunch is legendary, and that's because informal, personal dealings will remain crucial to authors (if they're not doing the publishing themselves).

– The demonstrable creation of value and the fair sharing of it. Publishers exist to create value and audience for writers, and this needs to be at the centre of all publishing endeavours.
For the full story link here to The Guardian.  It is worth reading.

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