These are undoubtedly interesting times in publishing. For years the industry seemed to shut its eyes and cross its fingers and hope that the impending digital revolution would see them emerge as winners. As it is, with ebooks and downloads now amongst us, profound uncertainty still exists.
At the recent ‘Big Publishing Debate’, speakers from both sides of the digital abyss assembled to argue the merits of their apparently irreconcilable positions. Google defended its new Google Book Search as a benign tool for allowing readers to find, preview and buy a wider range of books than could possibly be available in the high street shops. Crucially, the search facility enables the unearthing of long out of print books which their publishers have deemed no longer commercially viable. With one click you can buy and download something you might otherwise have to trawl through a hundred antiquarian bookshops for months to find, and even then come up with an empty net.
Publishers – and indeed some authors – are concerned about the potential erosion of copyright in this process. But this is a minor and contractually solvable issue. A much more important one remains unaddressed. Think beyond simply the problem of being out of print and consider the problem of getting into print at all. Anyone can self-publish. Anyone can set up a website to sell downloadable books. But without reader awareness how on earth can they attract readers to buy? Without marketing or publicity they remain invisible. That’s why they have always needed publishers.
But this is a difficulty which a facility like Google Book Search could start to remove. With such a huge global brand name behind it, you can be sure that it will quickly become the application of first resort in its field, just as Amazon, ebay and Wikipedia have in theirs. Depending on how much influence a self-publishing author is able to exert over the workings of the search engine, this could offer the perfect independent marketing solution.
Publishers are rightly nervous about this, energetically defensive of their executive role in deciding what to publish. But the problem is and always has been that the intense subjectivity of their judgments inevitably narrows the range of books made available. Editors are a pretty homogeneous lot – similar social and educational backgrounds, similar broadly liberal values, similar reading tastes. It’s not surprising then that an awful lot of books that get published are, well, similar. Add to that the Herculean labours involved in getting cross-departmental agreement in acquisitions meetings - as editors clash with marketing people who are frequently looking for excuses to say no, and chasing eagerly after the last big thing - and it seems a miracle that anything decent gets published at all.
One editor hit the nail on the head when he described a publishing house without an editor as being ‘merely a marketing consultancy’. This is what agents like me have been saying for years – every time an editor apologises for not being able to get support for a book he or she personally believes in, I feel like saying, ‘Shouldn’t we be making our submissions direct to the marketing department?’ In ceding their commissioning power to committees, editors run the risk of marginalising themselves and undermining what makes publishers unique. That’s the last thing I want to see, but digital publishing and innovations like Google Book Search really do threaten to make publishers redundant. It’s time for publishers to open their eyes and uncross their fingers, roll up their sleeves and fight for the future of publishing.