The pugilist paradox

The problem with publishing, I was told this week, is that everyone is too nice. There are worse criticisms that could be made of the sector and I’m pretty sure not everyone is nice, at least not all of the time (and least of all to me), but it would be hard to pretend to be shocked by the analysis. You are a convivial, respectful and generous bunch, and you do not hide it.

And yet there are plenty of reasons why you should not be so well-disposed to the world. This is a tough business to be in: much of what you do won’t work, and even when it does, no one will thank you (in fact, they will mostly remind you of the time things did not go so well). Grrrrrrr! Even your authors won’t really understand what you do: last week I saw a bestselling writer argue that giving a book prize based, even partly, on the publishing of the book was like reading an Amazon review that praised the packaging and the delivery. Grrrrrrr!

Furthermore, your product will be disdained, your sector disparaged, your initiatives rubbished and, worst of all, your readers will be belittled for their choices, particularly if they read digitally or prefer commercial fiction or, worse, a YouTuber. As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins wrote last week “virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real”. Grrrrrrr!

And it’s not just publishers that get it in the neck: author (sorry, bestselling, genre-defining author) Dan Brown was called all sorts of things on Twitter for having the temerity to address the YA crowd with a re- working of The Da Vinci Code, a smart piece of—you guessed it—publishing. Grrrrrrr! We may not want to lose the “nice” tag, but the book business would do well to toughen up. A good example was provided by the government’s white paper on the BBC, published this week, and the Beeb’s decision to move 11,000 recipes off its own foodie site and onto its commercial sister, BBC Good Food: cue much scrutiny and a petition. We can debate the social good of a free resource for published recipes, but I’d also like to hear about how this impacts the business of cookery publishing, sadly missing from any analysis I read. Search Google for recipes and there is not a publisher in sight: the BBC occupies the top two positions. Educational publishers face a similar challenge with BBC Bitesize, a revision site now turned into a free app, and promoted widely on BBC TV and radio.

One can understand the sector’s decision not to unleash its inner pugilist, but as Ebury Publishing m.d. Rebecca Smart notes in her column “Pride not prejudice”, the business works hard to be“relevant and current” and we should not forget that being relevant and current means that we need to turn up to these debates—even if its means being a bit Grrrrrrr!