Digital: the here and now

There is a residual perception in publishing that digital is just another market, and therefore it can be contained and dealt with by specialists without greatly affecting the way things work. That assumption sits nicely with the idea that the market will eventually “settle down” and “come clear”, and this is when real inroads will be made by publishing into the digital marketplace.

You can find traces of this assumption everywhere, but it’s most obvious in the corporate structures which make “digital” a separate thing from “editorial”, and in the de facto decision over the past four years to leave digital innovation to the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple.

The industry seems very content to be a follower. It’s not a strategy that is working very well, but—you can almost hear the voice of publishing’s darker side whisper—maybe that’s just because we haven’t tried it for long enough.

Digital is not something you can lock up like an unruly cat. It’s not a new animal in our ecosystem, it’s a new substrate.

A substrate, in biology, is the surface on which an organism lives and grows. It may be soil, or a rock, or even another organism. Digital technology has woven itself into the substrate on which not only publishing but everything else in the developed world lives. It is so remarkably adaptable and useful that it is even now taking root in poor regions of Africa, where an SMS-based service called iCow will help find a vet, prompt farmers on best practice, and log milk production. The substrate is literally what everything else rests on, what we live on. You can’t segregate digital any more than a seabird can avoid water.
So the fundamental question the industry needs to ask—that each imprint, each house, each editor and c.e.o. needs to ask—is not “how do we use digital?” but rather “how should we be changed by digital?”

The first answers are simple: be more open, communicate directly: create the experience, as Clark Kokich of Razorfish told Forbes this week. Get to know your customers and let them get to know you—an imprint is the expression of taste: once you can say clearly what it is, you’ll acquire a loyal audience for it. The next tier is more challenging—things like “infrastructure as a service”—and harnessing the power of big data. The key is that you just have to start doing it—digital culture is an iterative design culture. You won’t know what to do until you begin, and the more you let the substrate shape what you do rather than try to force it into shapes you recognise, the more you’ll know about what happens next. (And the less you’ll be bruised by it.) That decision in itself becomes an advantage, because the more distinct you become in the right way, the less others can compete with you. Ask Apple.

In sum: the substrate is digital. The pace of change will continue to accelerate. There is no “settle down” period, no comfy plateau where everything goes back to how it was. There’s only this, and publishing can choose to be very good at it, or to suffer the fate of any organism when it does not adapt to changes in its environment.

Read the full blog on FutureBook.

Nick Harkaway is the author of Angelmaker (WM Heinemann) and The Blind Giant (John Murray) (@harkaway)