There's a riot of cross-dressing going on; a scramble as roles are redefined by usefulness, not legacy. What does all this mean for the Olympic year of 2012? Are we breasting the tape after a sprint from the old to the new, or are we yet even to hear the bell on a long-distance test of endurance?
In my view, while 2011 may have signalled the beginning of the end of the era of publishers-with-access-to-the-mass-market as the dominant model for book publishing, it did not signal an end to the opportunity presented by writing or publishing more generally.
Between 1680 and 1770, publishing in Britain was revolutionised – by radical politics and religion, changes in the law, shifting formats and the breaking of a monopoly on granting copyrights held by the Stationers Company. Up to that point, booksellers controlled the market, printers were strictly regulated and the government legislated to suppress the printing of radical ideas. It's not hard in retrospect to pick a side in this argument. The freedom to write is paramount, and it should be supported by the creation of audience and value (a living for writers) through excellent publishing. Eventually, the status quo was challenged and changed, opening up the thriving industry we enjoy today.
But now, as then, control of the market – expressed mainly by publishers' access to the mass market – has been undone to some degree, this time by the digital revolution. What's up for grabs, as it was in the 18th century, is the significant opportunity to be valuable to writers and readers at a time of great change. Publishing is what happens when writing journeys between author and reader; it is vital in creating an audience and value for a writer's work, and therefore of great importance to our culture. I'm not so interested in publishers, even though I run one, but I am interested in what it means to publish excellently in this new world.
So what might good publishing in the 21st century involve? There are several things at which publishers will need to excel; some new, some old. These include:
– The ability to imagine the life of a copyright in three dimensions, from book, to ebook, to app, to audio, to enhanced versions including extra content. This, along with the ability to do so dynamically as technology and behaviour change rapidly, will be crucial.
– A focus on the consumer, rather than the book trade. Expertise in consumer marketing that contends for attention in all digital spaces, alongside strength in working with both bricks and mortar and online booksellers, will be vital.
– Excellent communication with authors and readers (not just trade and media). This comes in many forms, some well-established. Social activity goes for offline as well as online. There's a reason that the publishing lunch is legendary, and that's because informal, personal dealings will remain crucial to authors (if they're not doing the publishing themselves).
– The demonstrable creation of value and the fair sharing of it. Publishers exist to create value and audience for writers, and this needs to be at the centre of all publishing endeavours.
One way for publishers to express this creation of value is through advances. Publishers provide necessary capital for writing; advances will remain an important part of many writers' income. They also invest in the creation of audience, improvements in infrastructures, and expertise around all the activities required to produce a book. Many writers may not want to make these investments – of time and money – themselves, so businesses that do this and offer good value will thrive.
There are unquestionably many new skills required in the world of publishing, but many of the old skills will still be required. While publishers will need to invest in new marketing, business models and technology skills, for example, they will also still need to offer expert editorial advice. Publishing is at its best when editors identify great work, and assist the author in its improvement; publishing businesses that do this expertly will continue to be of great value. More important than an in-depth understanding of modern publishing technologies, meanwhile, will be the understanding of what can be done with those technologies, to inspire the creation of new ways of making and communicating copyrights. While arming editors and marketers with new skills will be vital, I would rather teach our old dogs new tricks than have to teach publishing skills to outside specialists.
Finally, the men and women engaged in publishing need to be bold and exuberant. This is an extraordinary age for writing and reading, and it seems to me that this endeavour will go better if it's done with a sense of purpose and pleasure, rather than defensively. It won't turn out well for everyone currently in the business, but so what? If publishing is useful and creates value then it will be of value, whoever is doing it.
And if publishing needs a compass to guide it in this time of great change, there are two questions that need answering with a whoop and an affirmative: "is this great news for readers?" and, perhaps even more importantly, "is this great news for writers?" That is, after all, what publishing is there for, whoever is doing it.