The blame game

"Publishers have only themselves to blame,” is perhaps one of my favourite phrases de nos jours. Closely followed, of course, by booksellers . . . agents . . . and never neglecting journalists. We are all to blame—except for those doing the blaming and even they, at some point, will be in the dock.

The phrase popped up most recently when I spoke to George Burgess, founder of revision app Gojimo and last week a Rising Star in The Bookseller, for a piece published on FutureBook. Burgess estimates there is a $100bn global market for revision and tutoring materials, well served up to now by educational publishers in print in their various locales, but not well exploited on mobile—where many students are now and will be. To succeed demands speed, flexibility, that global perspective, and lots and lots of investment. As Burgess noted, his vision for the app began with an awareness that it had 12 months’ worth of cash left. Can publishers be blamed for only slowly waking up to this, and beginning from a different point? Like many start-ups Gojimo has yet to turn ambition into hard money. I wouldn’t bet against it, but pioneers don’t always reap the spoils from the markets they spot, and in the meantime those publishers have businesses to run—most of them successfully so.

The debate around disruption in the book business has been fallow for a while, and the fact that Gojimo is focused on EdTech provides a hint as to where the smart money is going. Yet, for all that, no chief executive or m.d. I know seems entirely relaxed about the next five years. In our interviews this week with Pan Macmillan m.d. Anthony Forbes Watson and CUP Academic m.d. Mandy Hill, this unwritten future appears like Banquo’s ghost: a familiar but not entirely welcome guest. We’d like to get on, to focus on the books, to better reward authors, to incentivise booksellers, but this is a business not yet settled. It never will be again. What we cannot do is use this as an excuse. In academic the spectre is around Open Access, but the disruption is really about how learning will be accessed and who should pay for it. In trade, retail is the big shadow. Publishers, as Forbes Watson notes, are still reliant on bookshop backing, but the disruption is about how those routes to the reader are altering and who can best navigate them. Have booksellers ever been more important? Even Gojimo’s way of making money is to retail content—premium e-books.

The point here is that when we look back in 10 years’ time, I’d like to say we were not at fault. We faced the new world, asked the right questions, did not shy away from the answers, and kept our eyes on the game even as we waited for the rules to become clear. Winning is not easy, but no one gets blamed for taking part.