The Bookseller Essay: The A-bomb

The Bookseller Essay: The A-bomb

Divide up the CD collection. Decide who gets the dog. Put the house on the market. Don’t say the word “divorce” in front of the kids. Try and keep things civil. Separations are seldom pleasant, but there’s one on the cards in publishing, and the co-respondent on the papers will be cited as “digital”.

There is a massive divide in publishing. Not many people think about it, but it’s there. It’s not trade vs academic, conglomerate vs independent, or print vs digital. It’s not exactly fiction vs non-fiction, either. It’s between narrative publishing and information publishing.

I use the term “narrative publishing” advisedly. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction does not apply here. Plenty of factual books also tell stories: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have a narrator. They have characters, and a story arc. Whether the events described within their pages actually happened or not is beside the point—what they have in common with all but a tiny percentage of experimental fiction is that they are linear and indivisible. Apart from through serialisation (the narrative deferred) they cannot be broken up in any way that makes sense to the reader; apart from bundling, they cannot easily be combined.

Compare that with reference publishing, academic publishing, STM and many other kinds of non-narrative. We are dealing with content that can be split up into chunks that still make sense in their own right. These chunks may be substantial (one chapter of a book, one journal), small (dictionary definitions or encyclopaedia entries), or somewhere in between (individual recipes from a cookbook). They may or may not benefit from the extra context of being surrounded by other, similar pieces of content—but to the right person, at the right time, these chunks of information have the potential to meet a specific need, in a way that page 47 of War and Peace, taken entirely out of context, never could. Let’s call this non-narrative stuff “atomic publishing”.

Of course these two types of publishing, whether considered in these terms or not, have always co-existed, especially in the trade publishing world. The Hairy Bikers share a publisher with Ian Rankin and Kate Mosse, Brian Cox is on the same roster as David Walliams and Bernard Cornwell, and Nigella enjoys the cachet of being published under the same imprint as Susan Hill and Anne Rice. So where’s the problem?

The first problem is skillsets. Discussion of the transition to digital publishing has glossed over the fact that the tools and skills needed for narrative and atomic publishing in the digital age are drastically different. Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals—digitisation of text and the black arts of metadata—publishing narratives as digital editions is principally (though not always entirely) about marketing and promotion. In most cases, the only thing intrinsically digital about the product is that it’s consumed on a digital platform or device.

Content is divisible

Compare that with atomic publishing. The skills involved are very different. Database design and management. User experience design. Metadata within a digital product, not just describing it. Use cases, personas, prototyping. Search (one small word to describe one big can of worms). Atomic publishing recognises the reality that content is divisible and that a book is only one manifestation of the way such content can be collated, stored, presented and monetised. There are many types of company that have these skills: software developers of all kinds, magazine and journal publishers, dotcom businesses and many more. Sure, conventional publishing skills—editorial and production—are part of the mix, but it would be naïve to think that non-publishing businesses with atomic publishing concepts can’t acquire those as needed.

The second problem is mindsets. For a team with the right mix of skills and a true understanding of atomic publishing, production of a book of any kind should only be one of many possible product avenues to explore. Web-based and app-based products, encompassing a range of business models, should be the order of the day, while partnership deals and licensing opportunities should never be far from front-of-mind. Too often, in publishing, digital product options are approached as an afterthought, tacked on to traditional business models.

Without the right skills it’s impossible to develop an appropriate mindset for commissioning and planning atomic publishing projects. Without the right mindset, it’s difficult to appreciate the skills that are going to be needed if a publishing organisation is going to transcend the thinking that still seems so prevalent, especially where narrative and atomic publishing co-exist within one organisation.

Of course there is still some common ground: both narrative and atomic publishing need production know-how to make books, a sales force to sell books in to retailers, and so on. However, it’s increasingly hard to argue that these synergies are a sufficient justification for two drastically different ways of conceiving of and creating content to co-exist under one roof.

There are also some grey areas—publishing that at first glance may seem to have a foot in both camps. However, in most cases thinking about the content and how users will want to interact with it should reveal which set of skills is most likely to be needed.

Once upon a time, mummy and daddy had so much in common. Well, my contention is that mummy and daddy should call it a day, for the sake of the children. Larger publishing groups should re-organise their divisions and imprints to better recognise the split between narrative and atomic, and for their atomic publishing business units, they should deploy or recruit many more people with the specialist skills needed to compete with the big bad world of atomic digital content that’s already out there (it’s called the World Wide Web).

They should also give managers more freedom to innovate and take risks. Smaller publishers with mixed portfolios should think long and hard about their publishing mindset and skillset. And we should all think of the children.

Simon Appleby is director of Bookswarm Limited

The Essay is a monthly competition run by The Bookseller, inviting people across the trade to share their ideas on industry matters. This month's winner was selected by Bookseller editor Philip Jones, Profile Books digital publishing director Michael Bhaskar, writer and digital editor Molly Flatt, Faber Academy communications manager Ian K Ellard and Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton.