What was not lost

In the tumult of the past week, it would have been easy to miss the letter in the Guardian on Saturday (12th November), signed by journalists and academics, calling for a levy on digital intermediaries, such as Google and Facebook, to be “redistributed to non-profit ventures with a mandate to produce original local or investigative news reporting”. Personally, I would go further; a levy could also be used for a crash course in economics for newspaper bosses.

Book publishing has been mostly sheltered from the digital disarray seen in other media sectors. The book has not been unbundled, piracy has not become the great threat many once expected, and the impact of digital’s downward pressure on pricing in some parts of the market has been offset by robustness elsewhere. The financial models underpinning the sector have not been dismantled, while some ruinous alternatives have been resisted. Even where the format has shifted—the e-book and audiobook download being the best examples—the new products look much like their predecessors and are sold, largely, in the same way. We may like to think beyond the book, but, in truth, we have not yet stepped beyond it.

This might be regarded as our good fortune. No one who attended the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction ceremony this week, or heard the winning writer Philippe Sands’ uplifting acceptance speech, could have been left in any doubt about the importance of the book, either as a finished document of our time or, more widely, the dream-jar for our collected imaginations.

The book is more than the sum of its parts. But, lest we forget, some assembly is required. At the Baillie Gifford the chatter was about how publishers no longer invest in serious non-fiction, how titles are no longer marketed, how authors are no longer supported, how the business model is now defunct. But books don’t emerge out of the ether fully formed, and don’t reach bookshops or prize panels without a push. If we love what the book is, then, we should also recognise the effort of those in the background, even when it does not work. Publishers are often criticised for being fixated on print, but really it is the economics of print that should obsess us. The salutory lesson from the newspaper sector is not that readers lost interest in news, but that newspaper businesses dedicated themselves to the new medium first, in expectation (or hope) that the model would work itself out. So far, it hasn’t.

The story of the publishing trade right now is a little different: more has been gained from the print and digital mix than has been lost. How this narrative unfolds, however, will depend on demanding as much from digital tomorrow as we get out of print today.