Occasionally an issue of The Bookseller in print comes together in such a way that it seems to sum up a moment about the business that is worth reflecting on. No doubt a good editor would make this happen every week but I prefer happenstance, a word that itself seems made for publishing.
Some years ago a meeting was convened with various communications chiefs and trade journalists to discuss how to improve the reporting of this sector as well as its general standing among peers across the media. It was foresightful: since that point the trade’s reputation has worsened each year. You do not now have to wander far on social media to meet our detractors—a Guardian piece on self-publishing will usually flush a fair number out, as will almost anything written about Open Access and science publishing. Elsevier, as this story shows, is a good example. It is often accused of profiteering as well as hindering the spread of scientific knowledge. A call among scientists to boycott its journals has had 16,000 signatures, a figure that might seem impressive until you consider that Elsevier sifts a million submissions a year.
Elsevier is not the only publishing business struggling to assert its “value”. At this year’s International Publishers Congress, Hachette Livre c.e.o. Arnaud Nourry asked why the European Commission wanted to weaken the “only European cultural industry that has achieved worldwide leadership”. We might, too, ask why the UK government is hastening the introduction of costly new copyright rules that impact illustrated books. Perhaps they simply don’t see what we know.
I could go on. I recently asked a senior executive if they were comfortable with the way self-published authors were slowly taking over Kindle sales. The response—largely unsaid—revealed to me that they were not.
Publishing’s value is based on the so-called soft skills that first curate and then amplify content within a supply chain that can be both complex and indifferent. As I mentioned earlier, this week’s magazine is full of good examples of how these skills work—from bookseller Leilah Skelton, whose contribution to the success of The Miniaturist is acknowledged by author Jessie Burton in her new title The Muse, to the Carmelite Prize for budding illustrators, right through to how Elsevier’s subsidiary Mendeley is investing in reader analytics that will improve the understanding of how research papers are read.
We can be shoutier about this. I don’t wish to stretch the titular Shakespeare reference too far for, unlike Hamlet, I don’t think that by opposing the critics we end their criticisms. But I do think that by tackling the underlying insecurity of what a publisher does, we will better secure our fortunes. Outrageous or otherwise.
Philip Jones is editor of The Bookseller.