Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The LBF Debate On Relevance Of Publishers

The London Book Fair has once again come and gone and to some we spoke to there was little change to others the future was clearly keeping many awake at night. The Fair is a great place to witness the digital divide with those who are in the know and those who are frozen like rabbits in the digital headlights.

So it was a must to attend the ‘Great Debate’ on Monday on the motion “Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will become irrelevant.” For the motion were Cory Doctorow, the science fiction author and co-editor of BoingBoing, and James Bridle, an innovative publisher and writer. Against the motion were , Andrew Franklin of Profile Books and the infamous ex of everywhere and now of Bloomsbury Richard Charkin. The voting on the motion was always to be irrelevant as it was like asking a room full of doctors to vote on a motion that modern medicine is ineffective. However the points raised highlighted to us the digital divide that exists and that some publishers are clearly out of touch with their emerging markets.

Obviously it is impossible to group all the various different publishing sub industries such as academic, professional, education, trade reference, trade fiction etc and apply a generic brush to their different author rewards, economics, market drivers, digital drivers and content demands and so it often sounded that if something justified that a sector had got it right or wrong it applied to all.

The major challenge was to define ‘publishing’ and the value added roles from author to reader. Some would suggest that Bridle clearly made the point that publishers need to get back to basics and recognised that the new world offered many news ways to connect the dots that publishers have apparently forgotten. Franklin however reminded us of all that some regard as arrogant, old world and out of synch with today’s changing market. He lead with one could best describe as publishers know best and all else is drose. He went on to crusade against self publishing as if it was the devil and even made the claim that , ‘Free is too much to pay for the vast majority of self-published books,’ but quickly added as any speaker would having stuck the knife in, that “It’s too much to pay for some of the books that come from publishers.”

Some publishers today will still connect with Franklin’s view that the market is getting bigger, and that publisher profits are rising, and these means all is right and that publishers such as him are doing a good job and are essential. The problem is that parts of the publishing ecosystem are collapsing others are under threat, channels are consolidating, and the user resistance to change is moving faster than the market’s ability to respond.

There were many things missing from the debate such as words like ‘digital rights’, ‘royalties’,'rights registry','orphans' ‘pricing’, ‘catherine cookson’, ‘ian fleming estate’ ‘none compete’ and too much on self publishing. The fact that; YouTube has redefined quality of film and made everyone a director, Twitter has made everyone a 140 character journalist, Flickr has made everyone a photographer, Lulu and Amazon have opened the digital doors to all writers, Facebook has change communication, Spotify and Pandora has redefine music distribution, etc. appears to be lost on some and they expect to remain the guardians of good taste. That may be so today but writing has changed, language has changed and what was once the norm is no longer so.

We appear to be still a front list 13 week obsessed industry incapable of grappling with back list and mid list authors and orphan works.

It reminded us of that all so naïve statement at the time of the first GBS hearing when one major publisher employee stated that it must be right as their CEO knew what he was doing!

Charkin and Doctorow, were somewhat the professional debaters that lacked that cutting passion of Bridle or blind arrogance of Franklin. Yet it was these two that best summed up their side’s position at the end of the debate before the expected result was delivered.

Many thanks to Susan Danziger, Dailylit and Michael Healy, Books Registry and the Publishing Post

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