There’s been a great deal of discussion recently about how well – or otherwise – the publishing trade is adapting to its digital future, embracing change, disrupting its own business models before others come along and do it to us, and so on. It’s a fascinating debate, but it’s notable that companies and the publishing industry are generally talked about as if they’re faceless monoliths. They’re not. They are collections of people, and the skills and experience of these people don’t seem to come in for as much scrutiny as perhaps they should.
An organisation is in many ways the sum of the people that own it, run it and, for want of a better word, operate it. That’s not to say that everybody is equal, because in a hierarchy that’s clearly not the case – but as decisions made at higher levels are often executed at lower ones, the skills and experience of people at all level of the hierarchy can affect an outcome, and nowhere is that more true than digital tactics and strategy. Decisions made without an understanding of the economics of digital, however well executed, will result in disappointment. Likewise, a good plan poorly carried out can fail. The solution is to ensure a higher level of digital skills, understanding and experience across the board.
Because digital is still ‘other’ in many publishing companies, a specific department, team or line of business, it’s not yet integrated in to publishing businesses as well as many people think. There are ways to remedy this. Publishing folk should be given the opportunity to see all the company’s digital products, and familiarise themselves with the technology, as frequently as they need to. Tethered tablets and e-readers should be available in communal areas. Everyone should have an e-reader. People won’t fear tech they can get to grips with.
Nor, for that matter, will authors and agents. When you walk in to the reception areas of most publishing firms, you are still greeted by displays of wonderful books, but where’s the digital product? What does that say to an author concerned about the impact of digital publishing that their publisher doesn’t appear to take pride in its digital output? What does it say to the staff who deal with that author?
Levels of digital skill, in the general sense of true comfort with our new, always-on, multi-screen world, will of course change over time. Here’s a sobering thought: this year’s university graduates were probably born in 1990 or 1991, and are true digital natives, being unable to remember a time before the Interweb. They were in their teens when Facebook exploded on to the scene and have had a mobile phone since they were in primary school. To them, some of the current crop of digital professionals, who can remember MS-DOS, monochrome Macs and what it was like before e-mail, are already behind the curve. These young striplings should be sought out and involved, their views on how to access and consume content taken seriously. If they are in a graduate trainee schemes (if such things still exist!) then they should be given as much exposure to digital production as they are to editorial, marketing, sales and print production.
In short, having a corporate strategy for coping with this area of great change is important, but so is having a plan for the people who have to execute that strategy: train them, upskill them and share digital products with them as much as you can. It will benefit your company, and ultimately the entire trade.
Simon runs Bookswarm, a digital agency specialising in delivering projects for authors, agents and publishers. In October he will be teaching a new course at the Publishing Training Centre, Developing Digital Products the User-Centred Way.