Rebuck: 'digital and physical aren't enemies'

Rebuck: 'digital and physical aren't enemies'

The “phenomenal” speed of change in the industry has led to the “curious” revolution of old technology existing with new, Penguin Random House chair Barnoness Gail Rebuck has said.  

Rebuck’s keynote speech at the Quantum Conference today (11th April) ahead of London Book Fair saw her champion the “power of the book and the importance of the author” during the “curious cultural revolution” the industry is currently experiencing.

Speaking about “publishing and the author – past, present and future”, Rebuck, who recently joined the board of the Guardian Media Group, maintained that despite the “incredible revolutions” of the past 20 years, “nothing has changed at the core of our industry – it’s still stories and the people who create the stories – the authors – that underpin everything”.

She continued: “It’s their imagination, and their ability to communicate that inspires and moves the readers and makes publishing more than just another industry – it goes right to the heart of each of us as our attraction to narrative is visceral and enduring. Books are the DNA of our civilisation”.

Yet, Rebuck said: “The world is changing and the speed of change has been phenomenal”. Pinpointing the main “seismic shifts” in the industry during the last 20 years, Rebuck discussed the rise of Waterstones as the first chain of full-range high street bookshops, the end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, and the rise of e-retailer Amazon with its “brilliant, forward-thinking” approach to “the online retailing of books” which “led to biggest revolution of them all – the kindle and the digital book”.

However, she says that with the rise of digital, “the old is simply learning to co-exist with the new”. Citing the example of new independent bookshop Libreria which is in the heart of “high-tech East London” but offers hand bookbinding and does not allow the use of mobile phones on the premises.

She said digital and physical worlds should not “regard each other as enemies”, adding: “we don’t know whether the slowdown in the growth of digital books and the resurgence – or at least the stabilisation – of high street bookshops marks a sea change in consumer behaviour or is just a temporary plateau before the next wave of digital growth. What matters is that the readers are discovering and buying books, whatever the form of the delivery."

Speaking of the future, Rebuck quoted Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, saying that the “interactivity of the digital world may drive us towards a new kind of reader engagement, a blurring of the relationship between the reader and the writer.”

She discussed the growing popularity of YouTubers while encouraging publishers to explore new routes to readers through young diverse writing talent such as "online social entrepreneurs" and spoken word poets.

“YouTubers write bestsellers with a unique capacity to connect directly with their audience of millions of online followers which includes 75% of under 25 year olds", Rebuck said. "Interestingly, the majority of Zoella, Alfie Deyes, Dan & Phil books were sold in physical form as if the e-phenomenon of vlogging was given substance by physicality. But we also need to look to the online social entrepreneurs like Suli Breaks and acknowledge the talent of Akala who quotes Shakespeare and hip-hop lyrics to highly educated audiences who can’t tell the difference between the two. We need to celebrate the phenomenon of Kate Tempest, George the Poet and other, lesser-known spoken word poets like Franklyn Addo and MC Angel whose hour at Cheltenham Literature Festival fired up an audience that included both school kids and old-age pensioners."  

She added: "While we champion the long-form we should also have the confidence to explore the alchemy that comes from young diverse writing talent and explore collaborating with coders and technicians.

"It's the insight and passion of the invidiual creator, the author, that drives the experience. As we move from a society that values the creation of a unique storehouse of ideas in each individual towards a society in which the emphasis is much more on socially constructed ideas and group approval, we must not allow the uniqueness of the author to degrade into the bleak fucntionality of a mere 'content provider'."