An industry divided? In digital we trust — some of us

Image - iStockphoto: Robert Crum
Image – iStockphoto: Robert Crum

It’s not as if we haven’t seen opposing viewpoints — along with rising and falling fortunes — during publishing’s encounter with the digital dynamic. Some of the main divisions of variously rivalrous perspective include:

  • eBooks vs. print,
  • Online bookselling vs. bricks and mortar,
  • Apps vs. ebooks, and immersive ebooks vs. enhanced,
  • Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing for authors, and
  • Adult trade vs. children’s books.
Philip Jones
Philip Jones

But in his FutureBook column  There may be continuing adaptation, The Bookseller’s Philip Jones puts his finger on one of these divisions that’s weightier, more pervasive:

There are those for whom digital has enhanced traditional business models, and those for whom digital is an ever constant threat to these models.

This has the ring of something we thought we’d got past already, doesn’t it? Surely digital is here and we now are exploring, questing, risking together within that context, at the very least. Hardly with all the answers, no, but able to leave certain questions behind. Surely. Well, not so surely. At Thought Catalog, one of my recent pieces on efforts by authors to adapt to the newly disrupted terrain of books-making gets me this comment from a reader:

Are ebooks really here forever? What happens when they go the way of…the CD? Who will be responsible for converting them to new technology, which will be inevitable?

Tom Weldon
Tom Weldon

While dealing with the question in a lighthearted exchange with this reader, I’ve seen a quieter, more unsettling thing: Some folks are looking for faddish impermanence to airlift publishing out of the digital zone and deposit it “safely” back onto the terra firma of a “print resurgence” they’d like to think is under way in the valleys and backyards of the business.

Jones’ point of departure is commentary from The FutureBook Conference of late last year, when we at The Bookseller solicited the input of attendees on what they’d seen and heard. We’ve been in talks, my colleagues and I, on some of these observations and other inputs, as we plan further events and coverage. What comes into focus is a sharp division of viewpoint within the very context of change. Jones writes:

At FutureBook 2014, there seemed to me to be a distinct split between two different audiences. Those who believed in the world view, as expressed by Penguin Random House UK chief executive Tom Weldon that publishing’s transition to digital had been secured; and those who sided with keynote speaker George Berkowski’s view that publishing has had its “head in the sand” and needs to look up and see what is happening across the entertainment sector, where Candy Crush is in competition withFifty Shades.

This comes down to a question of trust.

George Berkowski
George Berkowski

Here in the digital publishing community gathered by The FutureBook — and voiced each week in our live #FutureChat — we generally take as our starting point an essential understanding that the digital dynamic’s impact on book publishing and its surrounding industries is at hand and under way. Early days for digital, as Jones notes, but pivotal days and the pivot, and its most obvious, has been to an environment of digital distribution and its associated influences.

  • We trust that everyone is reading from the same chapter if not bookmarking the same page.
  • We trust that however differently we may feel about one effect or another of technology’s enabling energy, we’ll be able to turn it to the benefit of books and the bookish.
  • We trust that we’re riding the horse in the direction it’s going.

But then, we see what Jones rightly points to as a deep fissure right in the room as we opened our late-autumn plenary sessions:

In our conference feedback, this schism was evident. The technologists wanted more of Berkowski, who was highly rated among the keynotes, and more of his type speaking the unspeakable, and shaking the unshakable. “Leading edge technologies: even the weird and wonderful!”, as one respondent noted. Yet others were for Weldon, who was seen as a voice of reason — a sort of Daniel among the lions, advocating for a meat-free diet.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: In digital we trust. Some of us.

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