Barber Surgeons and the publishers of the future

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.


Flashlight: Strobing the book world #2

Second part of the BBC programme, some sobering thoughts and stats from my friend, John Mitchinson.

Another interesting app, this time for Penguin Classics on the iphone. Untested by me as yet, though only a matter of time before iTunes gets fired up.

Following on from yesterday’s link to Unbound here are seven more ways that publishing may evolve (more on this from me later).

A new find for me and another way of sating my need for long form essay writing: Writing in public.
And finally, something to test on my children.

Flashlight: strobing the book world

Mike Shatzkin-the latest from Mike and this time the added bonus of a particularly lively and interesting comments section

BBC’s Today programme-First of two discussions (part two tomorrow) on the future of the book industry. Some good insights, not least from Sarah Waters

Publishing Perspectives-The Challenges facing Waterstone’s from Phil Downer. the book market opens, new models as opposed to new formats also become possible. This is an interesting possibility and one to watch.

Personanondata: Way past the tipping point-ebook readers sales double from November 2010 to May 2011

Harry Potter and the Papercut Artists

The Pottermore ebook offer is a fascinating development on all sorts of levels. But I must confess a small amount of personal pleasure when I viewed the intro video on the new site. It would seem that the New Zealand Book Council has an inspiring connection to J.K. Rowling’s latest venture.

In 2009 we worked with an Auckland advertising agency Colenso BBDO to create a promo video that could express the power of the word on the page in terms of images and voice on screen.

Colenso’s Creative Director, Nick Worthington, had been hugely impressed by a couple of young Danish artists based in London, Anderson M Studio. Their animation, combined with the writing of one of New Zealand’s greatest writers, Maurice Gee and a great voice-over produced this:
(Warning, books were actually harmed in the making of this video)

The video was an instant Youtube hit reaching the top ten in the viral video charts and is just about to hit its 1 millionth viewing. Neil Gaiman tweeted his approval and the film won a Gold Film Craft Lion at Cannes in 2010, two New Zealand Axis Gold awards, and an international animation prize awarded by New York’s Museum of Art and Design . It also reached the shortlist of another international award, the “Pencil” award for animation at the D&AD creative awards in London.

We still receive emails about it regularly, my favourite from a old Faber colleague who credited it with helping him sell Maurice Gee into Canada.

For me the whole project demonstrated that the task of book marketing is not to convey features, but to tell the story of the story, to convince the reader of the experience they will have once the pages are opened. Going West did that beautifully.

And so it would seem that Anderson M Studio are continuing their amazing animation work on the Pottermore site. Its great to see these two artists lend their unique talents to that story too.
Best of luck to them.

P.S. I also love this promo video about Ian McKellen and Shakespeare. Which is, of course, completely relevant because I was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and Ian McKellen has been to New Zealand.

‘I can’t see you, but I know you’re there’

Sorry all, I’ve been away for much of the last week at a conference. I decided on running a mobile experiment and didn’t take my laptop. Which from a blogging/writing point of view was a bit of a mistake. What I’ve discovered is that while the iPad is a great tool for staying in touch, I’m not sure I like it that much for any significant writing projects. Mind you I did get a lot of reading done and in any case it was a busy conference majoring largely on technology and the arts. So I’m still fairly buzzing with ideas to try out both on the day job and here. Blogging back on the agenda this week.

One more thing.

Very sad to hear of Peter Falk’s death. Columbo is just one of those great shows that never seems to age and that I’ve never stopped enjoying. Because there was something just wonderfully cool about the dishevelled, polite but continually underestimated cop slowly outwitting the inevitably clever and suavely over confident villain, in my mind always exemplified by Patrick McGoohan. Genius

And for some reason he never fails to remind me of my dad.

In tribute, not a clip from Columbo but this brilliant scene from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. It feels appropriate somehow.