‘Crossing Boundaries’, the SYP 2012 Conference closing debate, surmised many of the questions and discussions that had gone on during the day. The blurred boundaries of traditional publishing and online content, books and art, the classroom and the virtual space and the illiterate accessing literature were just some of the topics covered on Saturday between the walls of the London College of Communication.
Will Higham, MD of strategic insight consultancy The Next Big Thing, loves printed books and his parents are librarians, as he reminded us on several occasions. He is not willing digital to take over the printed world but he has some very interesting thoughts on this potential change. “What is a book?”, he asked. A brave move to a room full of publishers but a good move nonetheless. Using the various forms of Dickens’ Great Expectations, Higham’s powerful rhetoric forced us in the audience to question this Its original format was of course the serialised magazine, evolving through the hardback into the paperback. Our current anxieties around the emergence of the ebook are nothing new; they are reminiscent of Victorian concerns around the shocking appearance of Dickensian literature in the format of the masses, the book. We are in a time of change as publishers but this is nothing to be feared as we will always have, as we always have had, books – stories, intellectual property, text communicated effectively to the public.
You can have your cake and eat it, according to Erica Wolfe-Murray, MD of Lola Media. In fact, not only can you eat it but you can use its ingredients to make something yummier and more profitable. Using cake ingredients as a simile for intellectual assets, she explained how an individual, team or company can increase its revenue streams and its market by identifying how its assets, i.e. skills, personnel, resources, can be used to create new things to a wider audience. You can take some of the ingredients of a humble Victoria Sponge and make meringue, a luxury food that cannot only be eaten at ‘tea time’ but as dessert for any meal or used for turned into a Pavlova, a whole new food in itself. In this time of economic unrest, we publishers need to think about this, just as other industries do: ‘how can we use what we already have to make more money?’ How can we reach a wider audience? How can we add value to our products? How can we go above and beyond what is expected of us? How publishing houses will actually address these questions will be interesting to watch… the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
While we must bear our bottom lines in mind, a sentiment encouraged by Wolfe-Murray, we must also remember the importance of social enterprise. This was brought to our attention by the final speaker, Bobby Nayyar, founder of Limehouse Books and manager of Equality in Publishing. We must remember that we are in a community and as publishers, i.e. ‘making content public’, we have a social duty to produce a high quality of work. Nayyar argues that design standards are dropping as budgets tighten and ebooks become more prominent. We have a duty to ensure that books are still made to a high standard and with care. While ‘going digital’ may be a cheaper way of producing text and lend itself to exciting, interactive opportunities, we need to ask whether digital formats are accessible to the whole public. As Julia Kingsford said in the opening debate, there is a significant proportion of the public who don’t have access to these formats. Although publishing is a business and must be profitable, it is also a service. And we must make sure that we are servicing the public with high quality, accessible content.