Much of the comment and discussion around the changes in the book industry inevitably focuses on the damage being done to current business models in both publishing and bookselling. What is less talked about is what the book industry, or at least a significant part of it, might evolve into.
It’s possible I suppose, to contend that the industry will change only incrementally and that what we will see in five years time will be a set of structures altered but not fundamentally restructured by the transition to digital. In this scenario the major publishers would become hybrid digital/print content businesses and the retail chains will adapt to selling both print and digital in a new set of proportions. There may be less bookshops or publishers but they will find a new equilibrium.
I’m not sure it will be as straightforward as that.
It strikes me that it is highly possible that the changes and disruptions in the industry eco-system may well open up opportunities to entrepreneurial players re-presenting content in a radically different manner to those currently on offer. Crucially, I believe the changing nature of the industry’s skills base may accelerate that dynamic and make the a totally new path possible. To become digitally adept we are forced to learn new skills, but how will those new skills change us?
Consider the evolution of the medical business model. In the middle ages physicians were generally educated clergymen but in 1215 a papal decree banned priests from drawing blood. They could still act as physicians but not as surgeons. So barbers took on that role, largely it would appear because they were good with sharp knives. For over two hundred years barbers and surgeons were professionally indistinguishable sharing the same trade guild.
Over time, however the increasing complexity of the medical role ensured a divergence and the ability to get a short back and sides with open heart surgery is no longer a luxury we now enjoy. So what am I trying to say here? Perhaps we are now in a similar though much shorter transition phase. The original common skill, (our version of the barber-surgeon’s facility with sharp knives), the ability to shape text, remains but increasingly powerful technological and personnel driven forces are shifting the way we think about using it.
For example, the success of an app like The Waste Land depends, of course, on the traditional skill of Faber’s poetry editors but additionally it requires a dramatically different creative approach and skill to that of its print counterpart. It may that point will come whereby that segment of the profession develops so many new skills that it can source content and develop it innovatively without anywhere near as much reference to the age-old business publishing.
We are still at a primitive stage in the shaping and presentation of text digitally. At this point it is a close cousin of the print text publishing. But as its practitioners become less dependent on tradition, innovate through their own challenges, grow in confidence and develop their own professional framework, the pace will quicken. I have a strong hunch that it is likely to becoming an increasingly divergent practice from that of print book production.
If that happens then new businesses targeting specific niches and exploiting the disrupted environment may begin to colonise the space currently held by traditional players with more agility and native understanding of digital possibilities. This will not take two hundred years, in fact, we may already be seeing that evolution in progress through such business models as Unbound or Red Lemonade. No doubt many of these ideas will fail but some, I am sure, will make an impact just as important to the landscape as Amazon is now.
The question then will be, how different could the landscape look?
I do not know the answer to that yet. What the shape of the industry will be in 200 or 50 or 5 years time is anybody’s guess. But this is the first time in a long time that the question could be asked without absurdity. I am certain however, that the forces currently being unleashed will make it entirely possible that our descendent ‘publishers’ may be as sundered from one another professionally as Christiaan Barnard is from Vidal Sassoon.