Legacy industry

Judging the pace of digital change will be one of the key challenges facing publishing executives in the months and years to come.

As we now realise, different parts of the publishing and bookselling business are moving in differing directions at different rates, making for an interesting, if slightly unnerving, journey. The important thing is to use what we have as the building blocks for the future, not to simply dispense with that heritage in search of the new.

We hear a lot online about “legacy” publishing, as if having a past as strong as say Faber, Penguin or OUP is some kind of albatross, hampering our ability to adapt to the changing ecosystem. This seems wrong-headed. At last week’s invigorating World Book Night, “legacy” books such as Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and Josephine Hart’s Damage were timely reminders that good writing, published well and brought to wide attention by enthusiastic booksellers, can transcend generations. Meanwhile new titles, such as Charles Moore’s Thatcher: An Authorized Biography, show the value of long-term investment and careful nurturing.

In the US, author James Patterson took out a full-page advertisement this week in the New York Times Book Review and in Publishers Weekly, in which he listed 38 classic titles, asking: “what will happen if there are no more books like these?” Patterson wants government intervention to “save” the trade. In an echo of WBN, he wants the books to do the talking. In her piece on WBN, Julia Kingsford writes that the visibility of printed books incites reading and sells more books. Books are their own best advertising. But I’d take this further. The longevity many titles enjoy stands as the true measure of a legacy to be proud of and built upon. None of this fits the sometimes ill-mannered view of publishing: that it is past its sell-by-date, or reliant on print distribution as its principle value-add.

The publishing process, like the best magic, is invisible to the casual observer. This can be galling: culture secretary Maria Miller last week speech this week about the arts which failed to mention the word “book” once, though she cited plenty of examples of cultural success, from “War Horse” to “Skyfall”, which would not exist without that humble book deal.

Let’s not underplay the challenges ahead, but past performance may be a good indicator of future success.