Back in November 2009 I attended The Bookseller’s Futurebook conference and from this a masters dissertation was born. Vertical Innovation: A model for managing change at every level of publishing was an attempt to make sense of the mild hysteria that was sweeping the industry at the time. Here’s an extract from the intro:
In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote The Medium is the Massage, a book that described a rapidly transforming society in which new ‘electric’ technologies were bringing about immense and immeasurably uncertainty. McLuhan called it an ‘Age of Anxiety’ and attributed this anxiety to ‘trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools’. Fifty years on, this theory remains manifest in book publishing. New technologies and consumer expectations (today’s job) are evolving rapidly, while publishers struggle to maintain and apply traditional business models (yesterday’s tools). The ‘Age of Anxiety’ for the book business is therefore characterised by a tension between tradition and technology.
Twelve months on and this beloved dissertation is ready for revision. In stark contrast to the 2009 conference, the most recent Futurebook conference in November 2010 was one of overwhelming optimism and though some tensions naturally remain (pricing, DRM) they were discussed rationally and realistically. Any residue of pessimism from previous years was quickly overshadowed by the showcase of exciting and successful new projects. People were inspired and that, for a creative industry, is what matters.
For me, the most inspiring aspect of the 2010 conference was watching people talk about, and demonstrate, successful collaborations. That’s how I like to work – with people, not for people – but if you’d asked me a year ago what the prospects were for collaborative types I’d have given a grim response. In 2009, publishers were so enmeshed in a culture of fear and so concerned about relinquishing control that any form of collaboration seemed a long way away. Now, just one year on, we are seeing partnerships like Faber and Faber/Touch Press deliver truly masterful (and, as far as I know, profitable) digital products. Crucially, these products would not be what they are without the input of both parties. Publishers appear to be recognizing that collaborating in this way is beneficial, not sacrificial.
Sitting at the conference, watching in awe as publishers showed their wares, I did get momentarily swept up in feeling that we’re part of a revolution. But really, we’re just part of an evolution. Publishing has always been about nurturing close working relationships with other creatives (eg. authors, illustrators, photographers) and digital book projects simply require us to replace ‘author, illustrator, photographer’ with ‘developer’. The rest remains the same. Just as with printed books, the fine art of managing these relationships, trusting those we work with and communicating a vision is what sets a good publisher apart from a bad one. Having said that, I suppose evolution is supposed to happen gradually so for an industry to move from hysteria to something as brilliant as Malcolm Tucker’s iPhone app in 12 short months defies the laws of nature somewhat.
So where does all this leave us in 2011? Well, one thing our industry can’t escape is the tension between commerce and culture. At it’s core, publishing is about finding the balance between these two opposing forces and the point at which they meet determines the success and failure of every publisher. If 2010 was the year of creativity and collaboration then the great publishing pendulum is likely to swing back toward economics and commerce over the coming year. Fear not friends, this will not make for a boring 2011 Futurebook conference. Indeed, I predict that by November we will see many exciting new business models that have emerged and further progress on refining the revenue streams from digital products. Economics and commerce will no longer be dirty words, they will be the words that feed our future and, like our past, give us the freedom to continue to be passionate, creative and entrepreneurial.
– Kristen Harrison