The Future of Publishing

I came to live in the UK at the beginning of May 1997. That month will be remembered in the annals of publishing history not so much because of my arrival or Tony Blair’s and the Labour Party’s victory at the general elections, but because it was the month when advance copies of a book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first volume in the Harry Potter series, were doing the rounds among reviewers and retailers – and even more so because it was the first month after the “dissolution” of the Net Book Agreement or NBA, a fixed-book price agreement between publishers and booksellers which set the prices at which books must be sold to the public.

The publication of the Harry Potter books and the abolition of the Net Book Agreement had a tremendous impact on the publishing world, and we are still feeling the aftershocks and the resulting shifts in the market.

On the publishing side, we have observed phenomenons of conglomeration, which culminated last July with the formation of the biggest trade publishing group of all time, Penguin Random House, accounting for 1 book every 4 published in this country.

Another phenomenon that has become evident is – similarly to what happened in the movie industry – the polarization between high-budget, big-advance authors and the rest of the pack, with everyone looking for the next “Harry Potter” or “Dan Brown”. This resulted in the death of the so called mid-list, which represents the majority of authors, who struggle more and more to make a living out of writing, finding publishers increasingly inclined to go for bigger commercial propositions where the risk is higher but also the rewards can be higher. (The NBA was exactly in place to avoid this. When, in 1962 it was examined by the Restrictive Practices Court, it was ruled that the NBA was of benefit to the industry, because it enabled publishers to subsidise the printing of the works of important but less widely read authors using money from bestsellers.) This is especially true for debut writers.

On the wholesale and bookselling front we have witnessed some mergers, some takeovers (notably Waterstone’s takeover of Ottakars) and a great number of closures – including book chains such as Borders, Books Etc and British Bookshops and Stationers – and especially among independents, who have closed down by the hundreds since the dissolution of the NBA.

Now, in 1997, as I said, it was ruled that the Net Book Agreement was against the public interest and therefore illegal. Some people argue that the loss of bookshops has been compensated by a higher number of available titles published each year, and that even in countries such as France, Germany, Italy and Spain, there has been a decline in independent bookselling.

However – a book is not exactly like and apple or a banana. It’s not a simply a product or a commodity. There’s an intellectual element attached to it – so it’s not just important to find any book in great volumes in a bookshop or a supermarket, but it’s essential to find a great choice of good books and not to publish just a few celebrity authors but to help and foster good, varied, intelligent, thought-provoking writing.

The situation is becoming increasingly difficult for publishers, booksellers and authors. You may have heard that during the last month Atlantic Books, the independent publisher who won the Man Booker Prize for The White Tiger only a few years ago, and Quercus, the publisher of the bestselling Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, were forced to put themselves up for sale.

Many still look at the NBA as the main cause of the current problems, but the biggest change in recent years was the emergence of Amazon and the appearance on the market of e-books, which in a way are both consequences of the NBA being dissolved, and which are redefining the relationship between authors and publishers and putting under pressure the traditional supply chain of author-agent-publisher-distributor-consumer.

Now, Amazon started as a retailer of books. It grew to become the largest online retailer in the world. Many see Amazon as the Devil, but it’s in fact a good company that rates very high in terms of customer satisfaction (although not necessarily publisher’s satisfaction).

Because of Amazon and e-books, many are predicting the end of the publishing world as we know it. A common viewpoint today is that book publishers and booksellers will be redundant in the future, because the advent of digital technology, including e-books, the Internet and print-on-demand services, will enable authors to bypass them entirely. The idea, roughly speaking, is that authors can rise to fame by word-of-mouth via the Internet or by being picked up by Amazon’s sales robots – which can predict customers’ choices – and use print-on-demand services and/or e-books to provide readers with their work, leaving nothing for publishers and booksellers to do.

But do traditional publishers and booksellers really need to fear their extinction? It is, of course, impossible to predict the future, but I think there are a number of points worth making against this future scenario.

First of all, people who work outside the publishing industry can’t fully appreciate the sheer number of aspiring authors out there, and what it takes for publishing companies and agents to sort the wheat from the chaff to find work that is publishable, sellable and hopefully worth reading. There are many people who are already saying that there are too many books published as it is. Over 250,000 new novels last year in the UK alone.

So this is what we are asked to imagine: all aspiring authors around the world will make their work available on the Internet or put it up for sale as a downloadable book. Then, readers at large will sift through this deluge of words to find genuine quality work, and once they’ve found it, they’ll try to persuade other people to like it. Now, do we really expect this to work as well as the traditional filter system of agents and publishers?

Another point is that the media that have been successfully broadcast over the Internet to a mass audience so far have been music and video. There are reasons for this. Music and video (particularly the kind of short video you get on YouTube) are easily and quickly consumed. A novel-length book is not.

Many people object to reading on-screen rather than on paper. We’ve yet to see whether e-books will be mass-adopted – and there are already signs, both in America and over here, that sales of e-books are plateauing.

A slightly more technical point is the importance of quality typesetting and editing. These things may be underrated by undiscriminating readers, but real book lovers are well aware that there’s a world of difference between reading a Word document and reading a well-edited book that has been well produced.

Also, when you buy a book it’s yours: it can decorate your room and you can pass it on to your friends and children. It can even turn out to be a valuable investment in time. You can’t do that with an e-book – which is only given to you under licence for your personal use.

So, to bring these points together, in our future scenario we are being asked to imagine that readers of the world will be hunched over flickering computer screens or tablets, reading for hours on end an unknown author’s work that’s probably not very good, complete with typos and factual mistakes, in the hope that it might turn into Proust when they are 15% into the e-book, so that they can tell all their friends in order to make money for someone else.

Well – I can’t see this happening in our lifetime. I think the traditional supply chain is still resilient and is much more efficient and delivers better results.

As to the current atmosphere of gloom and doom in the book industry, I think our outlook on things is slightly distorted by the ongoing financial crisis and the long global recession.

In fact, I think that any publisher looking back, in ten or twenty years’ time, to this particular period in publishing history, might use Dickens’s famous words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Publishing has always been a difficult business, and although it’s true that the last fifteen years have seen some of the greatest and fastest transformations since the invention of moveable-type printing – a “once-in-a-civilization revolution”, as one commentator put it – the challenges presented today by social, economic and technological change are not more arduous than those our predecessors had to face in their own times.

Let’s try and put things in perspective for a moment — and accept the fact that things have always changed and evolved.

Printing itself was initially seen as a great evil by those who owned big libraries and charged scholars for admission to do their researches.

Another huge change was in 1710 with the Copyright Act, which broke the monopoly on granting copyrights held by the Stationers Company of London. (The Statute of Anne, an act of the Parliament of Great Britain, was the first statute to provide for copyright regulated by the government and courts, rather than by private parties. Prior to the statute’s enactment in 1710, copying restrictions were authorized by the Licensing Act of 1662. These restrictions were enforced by the Stationers’ Company, a guild of printers given the exclusive power to print – and the responsibility to censor – literary works.)

Or think about the introduction of the mass-market paperback in the 1930s – the paper shortage during and after the War – the competition from radio and TV – the lifting of censorship – the dissolution of the net book agreement.

And what about desktop publishing? And computer-to-plate printer technology? So now we have digital publishing and e-books. It’s just another change.

The message, in my view, is clear: we just need to readjust, to absorb the change and move on. The pace of change may make it trickier than in the past, but adjust we must, and adjust we will.

So I don’t think that the publishing industry, in UK or elsewhere, is hell-bound. And if we take into consideration some of the positives, there’s every indication that this may not be the case.

With the advances in print-on-demand technology, millions of books are being made available that were difficult to come by only a few years go. Availability and choice have actually improved over the last decade. Printing has become cheaper and less risky, and publishers don’t have to be lumbered with masses of dead stock any more. This makes publishing a relatively low-investment business, improves profitability and allows not only a better exploitation of authors’ backlists but also the emergence of many new independent presses, thus fostering creativity and diversity. The POD process has proved to be transformational for poetry, drama and special-interest publishers, and has given thousands and thousands of authors the opportunity to publish their own works and find an inexpensive route to market.

Publishers and booksellers can make the most of technology these days. Computers have rendered the editing, typesetting and production processes – as well as inventory and order management – much easier, less expensive and more accurate.

And productivity has improved: a publisher of just four staff such as ourselves was able to sign off to the printers eighty titles last year, with an average print run of over 3,000 units per book. Not bad for a small independent.

Thanks to email and social networks, marketing and publicity have become cheaper and less reliant on advertising and direct-mail marketing. ONIX makes the flow and maintenance of bibliographical data less of a burden for publishers. With the advent of e-books, intellectual content can be made available instantly through a paperless medium, and new, previously untapped channels are opening up for salespeople and marketeers.

Change and evolution are the dynamos of human history. The only losers, the only casualties, are the people who fail to understand innovation, embrace change and adapt accordingly. I believe that the scaremongers, the harbingers of gloom and doom, are mistaken – even if sometimes, on a bad day, I am tempted to join in their chorus and complain.

I can see, ahead of us a resurgence of literary publishers and independent booksellers. In our technological age, among the deluge of content and information, there is an even stronger need for gatekeepers. And even if books will no longer be printed on paper – which I struggle to believe – man’s desire to share and disseminate his ideas is such that publishing, bookselling and printing, in one form or another, will survive.

Mikhail Bulgakov – the author of The Master and Margarita, once famously said: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” I would add to this: “Books don’t burn either.”