The digital publishing debate has been raging as of late. First the iPad promised to change the way we read. A few months later, Amazon announced eBooks were outselling hardbacks for the first time. And more recently, Ray Connolly declared publishers unnecessary. If the news was to be believed, this new digital landscape was about as confusing as the ones in Alice in Wonderland for publishers, with nobody quite sure of which signpost was really pointing them in the right direction to the industry’s future.
So it was a breath of fresh air to finally read something more positive; on Friday, Ursula MacKenzie replied to Connolly’s article by stating that “publishers will be more relevant than ever” in the coming years.
While I might be biased and forcing optimism with the hope that my Publishing MA will actually lead to a job in the industry, I’d have to say that I’m more inclined to side with MacKenzie’s view. The digital age does not mean the death of publishing. It’s going to change it – it already has done. But – Tory election campaigns excepted – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of change.
That said, Connelly’s arguments are not all wrong. With increasing numbers choosing to buy their books in a digital form, those who self-publish are going to find it easier to reach an audience without first having to somehow stand out of a literary agent’s, and then publisher’s, slush pile. There are already some success stories born out of authors who created their own online network to publicise their books; after thirteen rejections, Kit Berry has now gained a six-figure book deal after creating a website – including online forum – through which she interacted with readers and delivered online instalments of her Stonewylde Series.
But as MacKenzie highlights, there are some services publishing houses provide that an author going it alone just can’t match. You’ve inevitably missed the fact that at least one person changes age, name or hair colour halfway through the book, but that’s OK, a literary agent or editor should spot that before it goes public. Embarrassment saved. Then there’s the publisher’s marketing budget that will get the title into newspapers and magazines, posters on the tube (if you’re big), written about on a Blog, e-campaign or Twitter that already has a captive audience. Want reviews? Let’s be honest – Penguin’s letterhead is going to catch more eyes in a newspaper’s book department than a nicely written letter from yours truly. Going on from here, the logistics of going non-digital, should you ever want to, don’t even bear writing about. If you only really want to publish for the self-satisfaction, and to get your work read by Mum, Dad, and the odd stray reader who stumbles across your writing then self-publishing could well be a great first step. But, as for every Leona Lewis there’s a thousand theatre school graduates and pub singers hoping for fame, the chances of becoming the next Kit Berry, or enjoying a similar success to Connolly, are – probably – quite slim.
Also, publishers are actually quite well equipped to take on this new age in publishing. It’s hardly a new development that’s sprung itself on the industry; MacKenzie demonstrates how it’s in their best interests to embrace digital publishing. Far from being a detriment to the industry, digital applications are enhancing it. Websites are designed for series to encourage readers to interact with what they’re reading, and applications not only compliment books, but allow people to interact with them in a whole new way. And they’re good at what they’re doing too – a few weeks ago, Penguin’s ‘Spot’ app was featured by the iTunes store and it reached number 1 in the charts, showing those digital publishing specialists know what the customer wants – and how to get it to them (possibly because they have the time, money and resources to research to get it right – how many self-publishers will be able to compete with that?).
And despite growing popularity of applications and online interactions with titles, this is yet to be at the detriment of paperback fiction. At present, only 2% of adults own an eReader, and if the BBC Review Show’s visit to the Edinburgh Book Festival last Friday was anything to go by, it’s going to be a long time before most readers are converted to going digital, with nearly all people spoken to saying that they still prefer a ‘real’ book.
There’s no reason that publishers will become defunct. There’s no reason that digital publishing signifies the demise of the traditional publishing model. We may not know exactly how popular digital books will become in the next few years, but publishers are preparing themselves for the unknown. They’re experimenting, exploring, and just generally having fun with the new technology available. Perhaps publishers are wandering around a bit of a rabbit hole right now, but, to steal a Tolkein quote, “not all who wander are lost”. Screw direction – if you ask me, there’s a lot of exciting discoveries to be made this way. So while I’ll bid authors like Connolly good luck, I think I’ll put my trust in publishers like MacKenzie and follow them through this maze – I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner!