Publishers need to ask themselves what are they offering writers and readers that other agencies cannot provide, author Philip Pullman told delegates at the International Publishers Congress yesterday (Sunday 10th April).
“If I was a publisher I’d be looking very carefully at what we do and what we don’t do," Pullman said. "I’d be asking: what is it that makes me necessary to writers and readers, storytellers and their audience? Could it be done by anyone else? Would it make any difference if it wasn’t done at all?”
In a keynote address entitled ‘Four revolutions: the business of storytelling from speech to the digital age’, he gave a potted history of man’s love of narrative and of the development of publishing – from the rise of oral storytelling (the first revolution) to the development of writing systems (the second), the development of moveable type (the third) and the invention of the computer and digital (the fourth).
The changes in this fourth revolution had “swept away much of the old, elegant world of publishing,” including the ability of mid-list authors to survive. “Together with the killing of our libraries, which were so important for these writers, and the discounting of books, there has been a catastrophic fall in authors’ income and that is not healthy for society," he said.
Nonetheless, he maintained that there would always be storytellers – “it’s the people in the middle, the people between readers and writers, who are affected," Pullman said. "Maybe a time is coming when the job of publisher will disappear”. But he also noted publishers’ important role as “quality filters – you know a work has passed the scrutiny of judges and you would be honoured to join such a list”.
The physical book would endure, he concluded. “The invention of the e-reader has showed us how elegant and robust the codex is” – and to prove the point he waved his first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost from the podium. But he also displayed his Kindle too and noted that people do not have the same emotional response to their devices as they do to print – “all those copies of Pride and Prejudice with a lover’s tears staining the pages – a series of pixels can never carry that history.”