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Past, present and future

A friend of mine often says that if you do not want to wait for someone to build a future you don’t like, you had better build one that suits you. Most publishers run their businesses with great focus and skill. Independent publishers have thrived in the Age of Attention and Abundance because we are intimate with our product, our audiences, the writers we work with and, of course, our cash. But times are changing and a new response is required, not just to survive, but to exploit the new opportunities.

The internet is the universe. We aren’t. Our businesses aren’t. We have to navigate it, and to think about our future is to think about what has always been, is, and will be of value.
There has been much said about curation in recent years. It is part of the defence that publishers offer for their role. The truth of curation is that publishers build banks of copyright that they think both excellent and interesting from which they believe they can make a business.

Publishers and other media companies have always been as singular as those who invest directly with talent to license properties. This is changing. Netflix’s House of Cards demonstrates that players further down the value chain are trying to expand their role to include investment in intellectual property. Alongside this, the transformation of self-publishing has demonstrated that those upstream from larger scale publishers are also able to exploit copyright. We are all part of one continuum, and will co-exist to the benefit of readers and writers alike.

Need for change

The effort in publishing in the past to persuade booksellers to buy more than was reasonable was sometimes very successful but arguably a misdirection of resource, effort and mindset that has kept the industry away from its two gravitational centres: the writer and reader. Our relationship with the trade needs to change —no less central but requiring a different conversation and new skills. Partnering to find interested readers and fans both online and at events is crucial to building readership in the future. The obvious first partner for this is the book trade, though there are many others.

One joy of digital is that it promotes thinking about all incarnations of reading, from the insubstantial to the disposable to the luxurious. We’re back to a place where we must imagine all the means we have of expressing value for a text. Where a reader will buy a £100 edition, let’s make that, and a 99p e-book where that’s appropriate. Digital publishing and digital printing also enable us to ensure availability and create inventory for far more titles than in the litho world. Global networks of digital printing and formats are enabling us to create much greater access to our copyrights. So print will remain a major part of our world, but in differing ways.

There’s a story that the market for e-books is maturing, that we’re getting a sense of where they will sit in our firmament. There are, though, more interesting clues in the present about the future of e-books than simply the notion of slowdown.
Firstly, there’s the question of e-readers. Perhaps the slowdown in growth is to do with where e-readers sit in the modern ownership of technology. It’s another device and there are those who have already moved to another piece of technology, or back to physical or, of course, stopped reading books and who now spend time on their tablets and smartphones consuming video and being social. If our future involves a falling away of e-reader owners in favour of other devices we had better be clear how we are going to create even the same market in other, more crowded places.

Secondly, the e-book marketplace has a very large number of books in it that are not in our usual channels. Self-publishing is growing. I expect our e-book market in the future to get more crowded and less governable, which is a marketing challenge.

Thirdly, if the slowdown in growth is to do with devices, then we should not be talking about a plateau but a ledge. We have a moment to think about how to give our e-book publishing the wings it needs to ascend higher.

Feeling sociable

Our speed of action has been, and is, defined by the demands of our new title publishing and the trade’s mechanisms. Is and was. But that has to end. Speed is something that publishers have to take more ownership of—but this is complex. Few other industries are mad enough to try to perfect hundreds of different new products all at once. Speed isn’t only about going faster either, it is also about making appropriate choices for the speed at which we might publish. That might mean we publish more slowly sometimes. It will inevitably mean that we publish more variously, at a more various tempo, and sometimes more often.

In the future we’ll spend a lot more time talking and listening to consumers. Whether they’ll listen will depend on our skills and the degree of fandom for the writer. If we’re successful, we’ll get a conversation going among consumers, and if we’re really skilful they’ll come back to talk some more. Having the systems and skills to do this will be the core to a publisher’s commercial opportunity, alongside taste.

From this past, and present, we can imagine that the future will include: identifying and investing in valuable copyright; being experts in consumer discovery through our own and other communities; distributing in print and digital to a global mass market; investing across multiple imaginative formats; managing micro payment sources for the use of copyrights; and accessing our own niche communities. We need to assimilate these new skills and more, to re-learn and appraise them at all times.

Stephen Page is chief executive of Faber & Faber. This is an edited transcript of the speech he made at the IPG and Publishing Scotland conferences.