The neverending story

The show went on at yesterday's London Book Fair digital conference, despite the absence of—conservatively—about 50 of the expected 200 plus delegates. But while many overseas delegates remained grounded by Icelandic volcanic ash, one of the overriding themes was about getting publishing moving. 

Time and again, speakers exhorted the conference to experiment with new models and different platforms and, crucially, in the words of the Publishing Technology c.e.o. George Lossius, the industry needs to be "much more nimble and fleet of foot in the world of laptops and mobiles".

Of all the changes digitalisation is bringing to the industry, this is perhaps one of the most vexing for publishers, or one that will require the biggest cultural shift. Think of how the trade has been working for, oh, about the last 50 years: titles put into schedules nine months to a year in advance of launch, presented to and bought by retailers three to six months prior to publication. The current (particularly bricks and mortar) model sails along at a stately pace, like the Queen Mary cruising into port. If we carry my rather tortuous nautical metaphor further, what digitalisation needs is for publishers to be buzzing around on jet skis.

When digital change is talked about it is often in a format/technological context: Kindle versus iPad, etc. But a salient point was made by DK's deputy c.e.o. John Duhigg—that the very nature of commissioning has to be remodeled. Duhigg underlined a point that is particularly true for non-fiction in general, and illustrated non-fiction in particular: that publishing is in a way no longer about books, but about the creation of content.

This notion has been around for a while, of course, but it has finally come to fruition with non-fiction in particular in competition against the instantly updated internet. Academic publishers have been tackling this for a while; there are really no more 'editions' of say medical textbooks, for example, but web-linked books that are updated continually. Now, digital publishing on the trade side must find ways of being up to the minute.