There is a common perception in the book business that the trade has had a soft transition to digital. An equally common perception outside of the business is that we are all just about to drown in it. As the veteran FT columnist John Kay wrote this week, “publishers are ill-placed for the new environment”, and while “some existing publishers will thrive on the basis of their strengths in author support services . . . most will not”.
Yikes. But contrast this with the more soothing tones from Enders analyst (and former Bookseller reporter) Douglas McCabe, who writes about how book-lovers do not conform to how pundits think they should act, and argues that these “perverts”, as McCabe calls them, are a much larger steadying force than many realise.
What mystifies me about some of the analysis that washes across the web and sadly—more often than is comfortable—washes up in our national media, is how it ignores not only these perverts, but also the day-to-day reality of the professionals. My response to Kay, who argued that “today’s bestseller lists are filled with imitations of books that have already been successful; footballers’ memoirs, celebrity chefs, vampires and female-oriented erotic literature”, is that the least he could have done before penning his misery missive was to look at the FT’s own book pages, or even opened up a copy of The Bookseller.
In this week’s triple issue (15th August), we feature 15 pages of preview information, listing 315 books. Not all of these titles will be to Kay’s tastes (there may be some vampire erotica in there), and some might fail, but on the whole it seems fair to suggest that these books will not read themselves. There is, in fact, a whole industry built around getting this published content out to readers in ways that reward the writer, at a cost that is not actually too off-putting to the reader, and in a way that does not kill off the intermediaries that make it happen.
There is also an industry being built around how this might be done differently in the future. To believe, as some clearly do, that publishers, agents and booksellers etc will simply float off into the night because people now buy and read books differently to how they did 20 years ago seems to me to be a peculiar kind of slight on those whose task it is to work out how the new tools can be used to improve on the business of books.
That is not to say that all is set fair on the good ship publishing. There are different winds of change coming, and huge waves that will continue to crash about—from the opportunity of social, to figuring out the true cost and value of content, from how best to use audience insight effectively, to wrestling with big tech. But thanks to the perverts and the professionals, there are doors opening, not closing.