It's not as if we haven't seen opposing viewpoints -- along with rising and falling fortunes -- during publishing's encounter with the digital dynamic. Some of the main divisions of variously rivalrous perspective include:
- eBooks vs. print,
- Online bookselling vs. bricks and mortar,
- Apps vs. ebooks, and immersive ebooks vs. enhanced,
- Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing for authors, and
- Adult trade vs. children's books.
But in his FutureBook column There may be continuing adaptation, The Bookseller's Philip Jones puts his finger on one of these divisions that's weightier, more pervasive:
There are those for whom digital has enhanced traditional business models, and those for whom digital is an ever constant threat to these models.
This has the ring of something we thought we'd got past already, doesn't it? Surely digital is here and we now are exploring, questing, risking together within that context, at the very least. Hardly with all the answers, no, but able to leave certain questions behind. Surely. Well, not so surely. At Thought Catalog, one of my recent pieces on efforts by authors to adapt to the newly disrupted terrain of books-making gets me this comment from a reader:
Are ebooks really here forever? What happens when they go the way of...the CD? Who will be responsible for converting them to new technology, which will be inevitable?
While dealing with the question in a lighthearted exchange with this reader, I've seen a quieter, more unsettling thing: Some folks are looking for faddish impermanence to airlift publishing out of the digital zone and deposit it "safely" back onto the terra firma of a "print resurgence" they'd like to think is under way in the valleys and backyards of the business.
Jones' point of departure is commentary from The FutureBook Conference of late last year, when we at The Bookseller solicited the input of attendees on what they'd seen and heard. We've been in talks, my colleagues and I, on some of these observations and other inputs, as we plan further events and coverage. What comes into focus is a sharp division of viewpoint within the very context of change. Jones writes:
At FutureBook 2014, there seemed to me to be a distinct split between two different audiences. Those who believed in the world view, as expressed by Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon that publishing’s transition to digital had been secured; and those who sided with keynote speaker George Berkowski’s view that publishing has had its “head in the sand” and needs to look up and see what is happening across the entertainment sector, where Candy Crush is in competition with Fifty Shades.
This comes down to a question of trust.
Here in the digital publishing community gathered by The FutureBook -- and voiced each week in our live #FutureChat -- we generally take as our starting point an essential understanding that the digital dynamic's impact on book publishing and its surrounding industries is at hand and under way. Early days for digital, as Jones notes, but pivotal days and the pivot, and its most obvious, has been to an environment of digital distribution and its associated influences.
- We trust that everyone is reading from the same chapter if not bookmarking the same page.
- We trust that however differently we may feel about one effect or another of technology's enabling energy, we'll be able to turn it to the benefit of books and the bookish.
- We trust that we're riding the horse in the direction it's going.
But then, we see what Jones rightly points to as a deep fissure right in the room as we opened our late-autumn plenary sessions:
In our conference feedback, this schism was evident. The technologists wanted more of Berkowski, who was highly rated among the keynotes, and more of his type speaking the unspeakable, and shaking the unshakable. “Leading edge technologies: even the weird and wonderful!”, as one respondent noted. Yet others were for Weldon, who was seen as a voice of reason — a sort of Daniel among the lions, advocating for a meat-free diet.
Not much less than war, a lot bigger than a mere battle, there is -- and we understand this -- an unwillingness to cede points without a fight. And if the traditionalists see the digirati as interlopers, the fans of the new dynamic may not always welcome each truth of the moment. As Jones rightly observes:
At the moment, the Weldonites are winning. Book publishing has adapted incredibly well to digital. Its businesses have grown; its authors have not jumped ship; it has not been forced to to adopt business models that it believes to be unsustainable; it has learned how to market on social media; it has adapted its pricing structures to the different formats, and via a return to agency among the big publishers has taken back control over the value of its products. For publishers digital has become both a new format to explore (and within which break new authors), and also a channel on which to grow sales (across all formats), interact with authors and talk to readers. Theirs is not a world where sales of Candy Crush are a consideration, or where the demise of the ISBN even registers as a topic — yet.
And then who is the resistance, and who the invader? Re-read this line from Jones:
For publishers digital has become both a new format to explore (and within which break new authors), and also a channel on which to grow sales (across all formats), interact with authors and talk to readers.
What do you think? Is it possible that what to one person looks like adoption of digital's powers and potentials is actually a co-opting of its new pitch by the traditional industry's savvy marketing?
This week, HarperCollins' Jim Hanas introduced me to Bookperk, a site the company has set up to deliver "ebook bargains, sneak peeks, special offers, and more...straight to your inbox." Do you know it? In an interview, Bookperk, Ebooks and HarperCollins, with Adam Robinson at RealPants.com, Hanas notes that the genesis of the site as "a Groupon for bookish products and experiences" has been around since 2010 and has been pegged to a "daily deals ebook newsletter" since mid-October 2013. In the course of the interview, Hanas tells Robinson about his job in audience development for Harper:
“Audience development” is a fancy new name for an ancient practice, though it genuinely is newish for businesses (like publishing) that used to only talk to other businesses (bookstores) rather than directly to consumers. That change has been underway for a long time now and as a result, publishers have a much larger direct audience, via email, social and other channels. My job is to build ways to talk to that audience on behalf of our authors and retail partners. Bookperk has been great for that, because there’s something in it for readers—book deals, sweepstakes for advance copies, other fun things for readers. It’s consumer-centric. I came from newspapers and magazines—Elizabeth did, too—so my first question isn’t how can we promote this book, but how can we create an experience that readers will want to sign up for. Then promoting the books is easy.
Now, does that really sound to you like a major publishing house that doesn't get it? Or might detractors, in fact, be envious of just how well, indeed, this "dinosaur" is adapting to the modes of the moderns in an instance of digital outreach of this kind? Jones:
Of course, the Berkowskians refuse to believe that the Weldonites have it right. As one respondent to our survey put it, when asked to articulate what they felt was weak about the conference, “People who just don’t get it. Worryingly that includes Tom Weldon who totally missed the mark during his interview. You need more digitally engaged CEOs to bang the drum for digital change not ones who talk about marketing and ownership of IP in such a traditional way.”
And there's the line. "Just don't get it." You can hear it from both sides.
- Authors who think that self-publishing represents a "massive" incursion into the industry, are often said by traditional observers to" just not get it" in light of the larger industry.
- Publishers whose books still come out on big launch dates and store shelves -- instead of slipping quietly into the digital sea that lies beyond out-of-print -- are people, the indies will tell you, who "just don't get it."
This "binary depiction" -- Jones' phrase -- of books and publishing "clearly isn't helpful in terms of the wider health of the sector." But that "binary depiction" and its competing motivations so far seem to be just as persistent as digital, itself. Not yet have we, apparently, outgrown the skirmish.
Is the traditional community's "continuing adaptation" really a digital crusade into terra incognita? Or are the technologists right that the business still doesn't really get it and is just performing floor exercises on comfortable mats in order to look agile?
Join us each Friday for a live #FutureChat with The FutureBook digital community at 4 p.m. London (GMT), 5 p.m. Rome, 11 a.m. New York, 8 a.m. Los Angeles.
Main image - Shutterstock: Karen Grioryan