The Apple iPad has finally hit the UK – but will it transform the way we read and write books, and will publishers be able to keep up?
Here comes the Apple iPad, and it’s making straight for the publishing industry. But are publishers diving for the dugout or leading a potential revolution in reading? The first part of Nicholas Mosley’s 1990 Whitbread novel of the year Hopeful Monsters is entitled “We Know the Predicament”, the second “So What do We Do?” Publishers might find Mosley’s novel instructive right now, not least for its brilliant imagining of an evolutionary process completed within a single generation. All publishers are now experiencing accelerated change – what should we contribute to the shock of the (not so) new?
The iPad’s arrival is unlikely in itself to create a revolution in ebook sales but, like Amazon’s Kindle electronic reader before, it will accelerate the reading universe that’s coming. That’s great news for readers. It should also be good news for writers, as these are genuinely new ways for their work to be discovered, paid for and read. But what about publishers?
It’s clear that publishers must move faster to establish our compelling and useful role in the modern life of reading. While acquiring new expertise, we must assert the best of our traditional strengths; providing capital (in the form of advance payments), offering editorial expertise, and creating a readership by designing, creating, storing, promoting and selling the works of writers. But that’s not enough. Publishers also have to explain what value they are bringing to the relationship between writers and readers, a conversation that is made far more transparent through digital media and digital texts.
What do they need to learn? Two shifts seem particularly apparent. The recent history of publishing has been dominated by the creation of mass-market success via booksellers and traditional media, not through a direct relationship with the reader. But new technology has challenged this. Digital publishing and marketing do not work to the rhythm of the trade and publishers need to respond to this. Second, the certainties of price in the print world, despite heavy discounting in the UK, have underpinned confidence in the creation of value for books. In the digital age these notions of value are yet to be established in relation to written works. Sustaining value across print and digital is vital to writers – who rarely have the opportunity that musicians have to make money from performance – and therefore to readers, and publishers must balance these worlds fairly for reader and writer.
These shifts point to principles that will enable publishers not just to survive but to lead change. Here are some:
1. Creating the greatest value for writers should lie in keeping their print and digital publishing in one place, as it is crucial for the promotion, publicity and management of texts – and for fair pricing. Publishers have to be imaginative partners across print and digital.
2. Publishers have to be clear that they will offer a fair return long-term to authors, and review royalty rates sensibly as the market develops. (This is already widespread in new contracts).
3. In the digital world, price is flexible 24/7. Publishers need to become expert in managing, not just setting, price in international markets.
4. The web offers a connection to niche readerships that can be spoken to directly, but only with great care. Publishers need to have direct conversations with readers through all available means, despite the fact that they won’t shop with us. Shopping’s not the point, connection to audience is the point.
5. Publishers will need to be passionate about boring data and thrilling technology. Excellent metadata – the information that governs and accompanies every copyright in the digital world – is crucial, as is an understanding of new technologies and the creative opportunities they offer writers.
6. Traditional news media has long driven a great deal of book-buying. But the means by which people find reading recommendations have changed and publishers need to join this new conversation while supporting and respecting it.
The iPad launch is not the moment, but that’s because the moment has passed. We need to work with authors in new ways, and keep pace with reading’s evolution, or better still become agents of change ourselves.
• Stephen Page is the chief executive of Faber and Faber