Riding the rapids

Last year my old boss, Stephen Page of Faber and Faber gave a talk in Australia about our digital future. It’s a great talk which you can view here.

At the start of the talk Stephen compared the digital transition to riding the rapids toward a waterfall with those in the publishing raft watching music and film disappear over the precipice. He then described the publishers on the raft looking at each other and asking ‘do you think there’s a tributary?’.

Its strange that nearly two years on from that lecture, people are still asking that question. The mass market is going digital right now and the ‘smell of books’ is not going to stop it. Publishing and bookselling are going over the digital Niagara falls. The trick will be to survive it.

And because there are two excellent fixed points, this is totally possible. I have no doubt that a) there will continue to be writers. b) there will continue to be readers.

Both will find life difficult for a while as the transition continues but because both are pretty fundamental to us as human beings, I am certain that they are not going away.

The rest of the book eco-system is not fixed. For the first time there are ways of connecting writers with readers that do not involve established booksellers and publishers. I still think that there is a place for publishers and bookshops but I doubt they will look much like they do now in five or even two years time.

I’m really not sure what that environment will look like. I hope it might lead to a renewed, dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative industry but that’s not guaranteed. For what its worth though, here is what I think they will need.

  • Publishers and booksellers are absolutely in the connecting writers and readers business or they are in no business at all.
  • Closeness to writers and readers especially in terms of pricing, remuneration, service and discovery.
  • If someone has a better supply chain than you, you’re going to be in trouble. Amazon has a better supply chain than anyone.
  • Understanding the technology and how it can support your version of the ‘connecting writers and readers business’ is utterly crucial.
  • Conversely, just because technology is crucial makes it even more important that they aren’t seduced into talking techie. Readers by and large don’t speak it, and care about it even less.
  • Which leads me to: It’s the experience/content stupid.  I have used books to entertain, inspire and challenge myself. I have given them to influence, to seduce and to inform. What effect do you as publishers want them to have? That is what you are selling and in fact, it always has been.

This is not easy. On my bad days, I can feel quite overwhelmed by the change and the loss of familiar things it will bring. But on my good days I see the possibilities and the huge creative potential that might make for an even better and more engaged world of reading. It strikes me that the right way to go is to harness that idealism and try to realise it by using the wisdom of the past to take care along the way.

And its good to know that Annie Edison Taylor survived.

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