In praise of slow publishing

In praise of slow publishing

Of all the internet acronyms I despise, tl;dr is probably the worst.

'Too long; didn't read' distils the worst qualities of our digital culture into four short words: the erosion of our attention spans to one second fewer than a goldfish; the replacement of nuanced long-form argument with knee-jerk emotional over-simplification; the implication that there are more important things to do with your time than read.

But then considering that time spent reading newspapers worldwide has fallen by 25% over the past four years, and the average American spends only 19 minutes a day reading, it may well be the ultimate motto for our times. 

Publishers are repeatedly told that they are too slow. In order to serve a fickle, fidgety public raised on a diet of instantly gratifying micro-updates, they are exhorted to ape the nimbleness, spontaneity and reactiveness that lean startups exemplify. In a real-time world, trends must be jumped on, new platforms must be adopted, hashtags must be exploited. Videos must be no more than three minutes, one minute, eight seconds long. Books must be bite-size.

After all, one of the great attractions of digital self-publishing is how quickly it allows authors to, as marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, "ship". Forget tortuous rounds of edits, inter-departmental meetings, multi-person sign-offs and complex publication schedules: get a first draft down during NaNoWriMo, do a quick polish, press the publish button, and move onto the next. It's author/publisher as tech entrepreneur: build a MVP (minimal viable product), launch it fast, and keep improving as you grow.

So what should tortoise-like trade publishers learn from their foxy indie peers? To publish more, and more quickly? To focus on issues-based fiction they can turn around fast enough to capture the zeitgest? To streamline production? To condense editorial? To create fewer print books and more e? To outsource new areas of expertise?

Perhaps. Anything that cuts out unneccesary prevarication and processes is valuable, and those getting it right in publishing today certainly share huge energy, a relentless commitment to innovation and a willingness to fail.

But there's something to be said for more haste, less speed. How many of those startups that achieved colossal funding and fandom so fast are actually making money right now? Not Twitter. Not Uber. Not Instagram. Not Snapchat. Not Amazon.com.

Even fewer have proved that they can become sustainable businesses long term. The pressure to maintain stratospheric growth often means that constantly updated bells and whistles start to outstrip the core product, and a lack of investment in people, rather than just marketing and sales, leads to a company culture that is truly bankrupt (as reported in Dan Lyons' brilliant Silicon Valley memoir Disrupted). 

It's also easy to make digital data tell over-simplistic stories. For every troll shouting tl;dr, there may well be dozens of readers buried in a beautifully written epic that took four years to write, two to edit and one and a half to publish, using fiction as a panacea to the frantic emotional frictionlessness they find online. The very same people who fall prey to pseudo-scientific clickbait on Facebook might also enjoy rigorously researched long-form non-fiction - the former fuelling the latter, rather than negating it. Adapting to readers' needs in a digital world is more complex, and contradictory, than just adopting new tech. As Eva Appelbaum put it at the FutureBook conference this year, "Breakthrough creativity comes from slowing down as much as from speeding up".

We've had slow food, slow travel, slow fashion and, more recently, slow journalism. Might the time be ripe for publishers to spearhead a slow publishing movement, appealing to the aspirations of a generation for whom taking time is the ultimate luxury? Should they invest as much budget on promoting slow reading as they do on marketing their latest ephemeral app? Should they take more time, not less, in ensuring each of their books is a Maximum Viable Product to ensure that time pressures do not lead them to dilute their brand?

Answers handwritten, please, on a second-class-stamped postcard.