The Future of Publishing Report

In 2011, I was commissioned by Media Futures to research and produce what became the Future of Publishing report. I include an excerpt from it here. To download the full report from Media Futures, click here.

Shaping the Future

Articles, reports, and conferences on the future of publishing are increasingly common; genuinely useful insights into the industry’s future, however, remain comparatively rare. To be truly valuable, such insights need to be practical and applicable, rather than speculative and theoretical. They need to be informed by an accurate and detailed knowledge of today’s publishing business, and of the problems and opportunities it faces, from the shortage of digital skills amongst its workforce to the challenges posed by the incursion into the distribution chain of the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Google.

Such insights must take into account the forces affecting not only how readers buy and read – their changing expectations and the pressures on their time – but also how writers write, how they are paid for their work, and whether a move towards reading on electronic devices will see a change not merely in how works are distributed, but also in the nature of those works themselves. They need to consider not only what “digital” means within the publishing industry of today, but what it will mean tomorrow: not just the print books in ebook format that currently predominate, but also content specifically created for the new formats that may develop – from wholly electronic formats which explore devices’ connectedness or ability to combine text with other media, to mixed formats, like Melville House’s Hybrid Books. Predictions as to when digital revenues will outstrip print, or whether enhanced ebooks have a future, are doubtless interesting subjects for discussion, and may yet have some relevance to an industry still coming to terms with digital; nevertheless, informed analysis of why enhanced formats are failing to generate revenues, leading to practicable suggestions as to how they might be made financially viable, are likely to prove of far greater relevance to the industry.

Genuinely useful insights are likely to be informed by a broad perspective that can absorb the lessons of other creative and media industries that have already undergone many of the disruptions wrought by the move to digital. To its credit, publishing certainly seems increasingly aware that it ought to be learning from other businesses’ experience.

A pervasive and inhibiting dread of “what happened to the music industry” is gradually being replaced by a more constructive awareness that useful lessons might be learned by listening to those who have lived through such disruption. Battle–scarred veterans from the music and newspaper industries are often invited to speak at the various digital publishing conferences, while the Publishers’ Association last year installed as its chief executive Richard Mollet, formerly Director of Public Affairs at the BPI, the body representing the UK recorded music industry.

The most valuable insights of all will be those that synthesise all of these aspects, combining the broader perspectives offered by knowledge of other sectors with a detailed understanding of the specificities of publishing – how a song, for instance, differs from a novel in terms of how it is produced, bought, consumed, shared, and valued. For with publishing still at the early stages of its transformation into a predominantly digital business, perhaps the most important decision it faces today is to what extent it will allow its future to be shaped by external forces – most obviously Amazon, Apple, and Google, but also a raft of other, smaller innovators – and how far it is willing to shape that future itself.

To download the full report from Media Futures, click here.

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