Stationers' Hall offers a generous cut of the publishing industry

By mattwhipp mattwhipp, Tuesday 11 March 2008

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For one of the leading lights of the book publishing industry, Gail Rebuck doesn't claim to have all the answers.


But at last night's Livery Lecture at Stationers' Hall, the Random House Group chief took apart the issues facing an industry in transformation in much the same way a good butcher carves up the choice joints worth chewing over.


I'm sure Ms Rebuck wouldn't thank me for such a comparison, but the talk made for a pretty clean dismemberment of publishing in the 21st century.


Is the book a device or the work itself? Where does a work stop being a book and become a film, a soundtrack, a discussion? Are books boring, reflecting the whims of an increasingly homogenous society? Are bookshops worse, promoting 3 for 2 offers over the merits of the books themselves? Are we guilty of linguistic imperialism rather than empowerment and education? What will the book's iPod moment look like? Do people read anymore? Should we care?


Rebuck's commitment was that her company would be at the table to sample every new opportunity and challenge presented by the digital, connected world.


Building communities around books and authors; offering the tools and platform for peer review of academic work; supporting new technologies to sample and distribute the book form.


Indeed it seemed clear that there are some types of content that will find digital as the most appropriate platform. Scientific journals will always benefit from peer review and can continually be updated in an interactive format.


But the book as most of us understand it, as a novel we take for the train, the lunch break, for bed, will struggle on anything other than a page.


"The eBook is here, and its impact will be far-reaching," she said, despite her personal grumbles over the products she had trialled.


She's right of course – the eBook will undoubtedly find its place once the right service is there, but my word there will be some teething problems.


The most painful, in my err book, is that an eBook can hold an entire library. I don't care. I can only read one book at a time. A book is also a public statement, like a mobile phone. The Harry Potter commuters clearly all belong to a club. Rebuck herself said that viral marketing – word of mouth – is the biggest driver for book sales.


But an eBook reader doesn't have a cover.


What digital doesn't change, however, is the core role of the publisher: to nurture new talent and protect the rights of authors through copyright – an issue not lost to the audience at Stationers' Hall: the cradle of copyright in the UK and custodian of many thousands over hundreds of years.


Copyright will haunt book publishing. When dealing with the physical, copyright just about works. A publisher might not like the fact I lend you a book, but they at least know that if you have it, I can't read it, and it might cause you to buy it. If I make a copy, it's unlikely to be as good: paper stock, ink quality, the end product will likely suffer for being cheaper.


Digital copies are perfect, and effortless to create and distribute.


And efforts to inflict copyright technologies have more often than not resulted in a poor user experience. Ask Sony


Gail Rebuck is right to take digital seriously and to be seriously worried about copyright.


But there will likely be years where the problems caused by digital far outweigh the revenues generated from it.


Will we be thinking about books in the same way we consider the floppy disk a few years from now?


That, by the way, might be about the only rhetorical question in book publishing these days.

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