The distorting mirror

6241071I attended the London Book Fair yesterday, and am still trying to reconcile what I saw at Earls Court with some of the accounts of the the event that are appearing on the web today.

I was reading on Monday that the LBF was a ‘huge trade show with little technology’, and that it was ‘interesting how much space [was] dedicated to… digital’. The ambivalence of the latter comment intrigued me. Would I find that much of the cavernous exhibition hall had been staked out for the promotion of those at the vanguard of the self-publishing movement like Smashwords or Lulu? Would the spotlight be on the opportunities open publishing models deployed by the likes of flatworld knowledge could offer, outside of the college textbook market? Would traditional publishers be announcing new ways of supporting the communities of interest they serve, and launching novel business models facilitating the incorporation of user-generated content?

Would this be the year that command-and-control would be partially seceded to the mutual benefit of all, and a space opened up within the established mechanisms of traditional publishing that would acknowledge, support and monetize the dialogue and exchange that drives the publication process forward?

As it turned out, the answer to my question was provided topographically.

The questing digital nomad in search of enlightenment at this year’s LBF had to fight their way through the eerie blue-gray light in the front hall then sashay, blinking, through one of the dividing portals into the buttery incandescence that suffused the rear hall. By the time you’d hit the back wall, your swimming vision would probably have been recovering sufficiently for you to notice that you’d yet to encounter the digital zone of legend. Finally, as your sight normalized you would have realized that you could in fact see it, but that your eyes had rejected it as false data on the basis that its Lilliputian dimensions did not align themselves adequately to your expectations. The modest proportions of the photo above is not meant to emphasize this further, however. There is a bigger version here.

If the dimensions of the Digital Zone were demarcated in exact proportion to vendors’ interest in the production, redistribution and sale of content digitally at the London Book Fair, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that many of the exhibitors appear to remain focused on serving the needs of an ageing constituency’s declining support for their product in print.

Adjacent to the Digital Zone was Sony’s packed stand, promoting their Reader. I noticed many delegates of an age who would have observed their parents agonizing over whether they should have buy a VHS or a Betamax video. Perhaps more recently they themselves were torn between a Blu-ray or HD-DVD player.

I characterize books as being chronically contagious. If you have touched them once, you will always have them. I fit that constituency, and the delightful people behind OnDemandBooks are finding ways to ensure that my personal predilection for content in print will continue to be served well into my dotage. However, I also acknowledge that there is no reason why print should be privileged as the medium within which content currently associated with the book should be reproduced in perpetuity.

My needs are being met. That’s great for me. But how are publishers preparing to serve the needs of those who already prefer to consume music, classified advertising, photography, news, restaurant reviews, traffic updates, business analysis, and celebrity gossip, amongst other things, digitally?

The lesson from history that needs to be acknowledged is that whilst platforms fail, content endures. The publisher’s relationship with the content they develop and curate is evolving away from its custodial origins into a future of advocacy and engagement.  As this metamorphosis takes place, it is to be hoped that publishers will be rather more rigorous in asking themselves how best to serve the needs of those who are not 40 or older, and who are interested in consuming the content formerly (and currently) associated with the book concept in novel settings and emerging channels.

Publishers should already have built a compelling, persuasive story around the unique benefits and values of the services they offer in to demonstrate the enduring relevance of their skills, attributes, and – above all other things – relationships they stand for, regardless of the setting or format within which the content they produce is distributed. If they do not have such a narrative in place, now would be a good time to write one.

Content flows to where the trust is, and the dynamics of authority are changing. Acknowledge that there are technological challenges to rise to, but do not trust in your own abilities to solve them – unless you happen to be as proficient in creating solutions as you are in creating content, which is a big ask. Most- arguably, all – of the pieces of the publishing revolution are now in place. Find partners or vendors who have resolved the issues you struggle with. Focus on your strengths. Specifically: trust in your relationships, and trust that your ability to nurture them will in turn allow you to trust in the content you are entrusted with, and which you support the creation of.

That’s a lot of trusting; but trust should be at the heart of everything publishers do.

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