Monday, July 27, 2009

A books revolution

In The Sunday Times, Victoria Barnsley, chief executive of Harper Collins, says that we're living through a revolution in book publishing.
“Consumers now want images, music, video as well as words. It is no longer enough to say to authors you have to produce text. We need things to go with that text. Our business is not just about words, but content in all its guises. Not many authors are engaging with this yet.”


  1. Anonymous12:12 pm

    agree in case of ebooks; but then i think vids dumb down work/readers intelligence. this pandering to the publics return to a disneyworld level of competence in the end will destroy book market altogether. a book is a different uiverse of comprehension. mankinds whole existence depends on books. not films. one educates, the other, so far, only entertains.

  2. Meg Davis5:48 pm

    Sounds like VB has been listening to the BBC about "360-degree programming", where writers create projects that work across a variety of platforms. Tail wagging the dog, in other words.

  3. Anonymous12:19 am

    Oh yeah, of course it's the authors' fault. Because publishers are giving us such big advances and we're sitting around spending the money on champagne instead of writing, hiring artists and musicians, setting up blogs and websites and iPhone deals and so on. If only we were as hip to the moment as those HC execs, huh?

  4. It's not the individuals - whether authors or editors. The fault lies in the system itself.

    Suppose you'd gone to pitch a "three-sixty project" to the BBC in 2000. They were using the term even then, but nobody had much idea how to get their big old supertanker to change direction. The average writer could have half a dozen meetings back then and never see the same Beeb exec twice. They had at least three different people "in charge of" interactivity.

    Okay, so now it's 2009, and the BBC has done a lot to catch up. But publishing is a much longer-established business. It evolved to make it easy for freelance creatives to plug into the system - and that's fine as long as everything stays the same. But what we have to contend with is the flipside of Schatz's book about the heyday of Hollywood. There, doing business in a traditional way allowed "the genius of the system" to flourish. Now Ms Barnsley and others are quite rightly saying that publishing is changing - and those are exactly the circumstances where you start to suffer "the idiocy of the system".

    This change she's asking for is unlikely to come from writers. Not because we haven't cottoned on yet (most writers I know are positively bursting with ideas and energy about online, interactive and mobile opportunities for their work) but because we are not salaried employees of the publishers. We are not hooked into the internal politics of the publisher. And, as individuals, we do not have the time, resources, access or incentive to steer the restructuring that publishers need to do. (It would be highly inefficient to do on an ad hoc basis anyway - there's no sense in each writer having to reinvent the wheel.)

    This process will certainly require champions within the publishers. But as it is multidisciplinary and calls for projects to be conceived as cross-media from the ground up, I don't see today's generation of editors leading the change. Most likely it will be companies like Hothouse or Working Partners or Alloy Entertainment, who will work up cross-media packages to present - not necessarily to one outlet (the book publisher) but possibly to iPhone, print and other publishers together.

    It makes sense for packagers to spearhead this because it is worth their investors backing the development of a range of skills in-house. Publishers are too risk-averse to take that kind of task on. Then, in 10 years time when cross-media is the new status quo and it's time for another wave of consolidation, the publishers will all vie with each other to buy up those pioneering packagers.

    So, the upshot of Ms Barnsley's remarks? Sell your publisher shares and buy into a forward-thinking book packager instead.

  5. Fascinating discussion. I can't help but think of Marshall McLucan's "The medium is the message."

    Companies in the digital world, whether they be publishers, TV, radio or others, often go mad about hardware. But they forget the most important thing of all: the software, which in this case is the word.

    I would have liked to debate with Marshall McLuhan that the message is the message.

  6. Anonymous5:09 pm

    Strictly speaking, the software is the story. Words are just one of the ways we tell stories now. I think that is what VB is getting at.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.