Page against the machine 3 – less transparent books?

How can publishers create radically new products if their management structures and internal power relations remain the same? I can’t remember seeing any discussion of this in the trade press – Tim Oliver’s post in The Bookseller’s Futurebook web spinout is the exception because it at least attempts to address the managerial implications of the new digital routes to market. Truly strategic product development in the industry has remained fairly static in the 1700 or so years since the codex took over from the scroll, but prior to advent of the e-book, CD-ROMs and XML have only revealed an industry struggling with the idea of change: ‘Let’s only make changes to keep things as they are.’

In my previous post I was looking at the XML fetish for what it reveals about unconscious motivations behind the scenes at the publishing company. Similarly the word ‘workflow’ appears too often in the vocabulary of some publishing production managers, whose lack of strategic insight into comparative labour processes may be judged by their micro-management (by e-mail) of front-of-house staff in huge companies in India; these staff may in turn be several further internal e-mail stages (and a language or two) away from the people who in fact do the work. Most of these managers are acutely aware of saving money externally but have literally no model of the cost of their own work – traditional publishers’ costing models have exceptionally crude methods of allocating internal costs to each cost centre (a book). In short, whether a book takes 20 or 200 hours of internal labour time does not feed back to pricing decisions. These kinds of managers are oblivious to the consequences of their own organizational culture; they have no conception of adding value through creativity, or that quality control and indeed production itself is a marketing function. Unfortunately the classical departmental model for a publishing company (editorial, production, sales, publicity) was only intended for a one-way (output only) workflow. It is clear that other publication models truly idiomatic to the internet have mushroomed at a rate traditional publishers can only look at with envy. Wikipedia, for example, has a completely different many-to-many, aggregative approach to content; Amazon are moving rapidly to a seamless publish/distribute/monetize model that brilliantly designs in crowdsourced quality assurance by inviting feedback on products (reviews) and then inviting feedback on the feedback (‘Was this review helpful to you?’). With Pottermore, J. K. Rowling has seen that e-books need no physical distribution system; she and her advisers judge, quite reasonably, that publishers are trying to cream off a big slice of revenue for hardly any work or expertise. Meanwhile publishers, oblivious to their organizational and conceptual rigidities, wonder how they can keep up.

The short answer is – they can’t.

What is to be done? In the game of high-tech catch-up, traditional book publishers are always going to lose. When they try to play the game, such as with CD-ROMs or XML, it ends up somehow it isn’t really the right game. Publishers’ games are just reworkings of the games they have always played; the power structures, the decision-making processes, the workflows – in-house – remain the same. I’m not saying for a minute we shouldn’t try out new digital products, but isolated successes with (for example) the oddly old-fashioned one-way and rather Reithian Apps Store are never going to be any more successful as a survival strategy than the remoras allowed to pick scraps out of the teeth of a shark.

Isn’t there something craven about publishers running around trying to second-guess the next digital device or website to carve chunks out of what used to be our patch? Disastrously, we were too slow and naive to work out the so-called ‘free content’ paradigm while Google vampirized the value out of paid-for content – and they haven’t finished yet. Has a sales takeoff from zero to $30+ billion turnover in 15 years ever been bettered? But there’s no point in trying to copy them, or in sitting around feeling jealous, or in sullenly despising what we do.

For when we lament ‘the book’ we undermine our brand. Maybe, as Derrida said in my first post of the three, ‘the form of the “book” is now going through a period of general upheaval, and […] that form now appears less natural, and […] less transparent than ever’. Maybe the digital upheaval has made us aware for the first time of the form of the book; the book is no longer transparent. We can now see the book more fully for what it really is. Thanks to e-books, we can now, as we turn each page, feel the gentle resistance of the paper against our fingers before it obligingly (in theory!) lies down with its fellows. We can now hear the delicately different kinds of rattle from each kind of paper. Confessions of a book buyer and reader: I love the texture of the soapy matt coating of china clay in artbooks, and the desert-bone dryness of the woody 80 gsm vol 18s in Christmas-present-style hardbacks. I shut my eyes and try to read the embossing on paperback covers with my fingers. I have pangs of guilt about scuffing the crisp, smart and pointy corners of the dark cover of a paperback so that they end up with ugly white dogears. In bookshops I angst about putting one of my thumbprints on one of those black pages beloved of designers – I won’t buy a copy if I see someone else’s already there. Old paperbacks from my twenties have an earthy smell of mushrooms; I look at their yellowing paper in disbelief, because the memory of what they say seems so fresh. Everybody – whether you admit it or not – sniffs printing inks to get the hit of pure fresh solid physical gorgeous book. Compared with the tactile deadness of the plastic of any e-book reader, a codex is a magnificent sensuous experience. Why don’t publishers start promoting the smell of their books? We see lusciously staged cookery programmes every day on the television – yes, we have junk food too, but I think our appreciation of good food in the UK has never been more widespread, discriminating or adventurous. People are hungry for sensuous consumer experiences, and perfumiers make some of the highest margins on the High Street. Trying to reach another of our senses, makers of plastic digital boxes are desperate to give their wares some tactility – my smartphone buzzes like a bluebottle trapped in a jamjar. Or they might try to replace the sensuous turning of a paper page with a miserable and grisly visual simulation of page-turning accompanied by the sound of a creepy ever-identical neither-alive-nor-dead zombie pseudo-rustle.

So if we publish books on paper, let’s value what we make. More than that, let’s revel in their glorious physicality. Apple-style, let’s bring designers and marketing together and give them both a proper chance to show their multimodal creativity – and to shout about it. In 20 years’ time today’s file formats and devices will look like embarrassing antiques and make us laugh. Along the way people will perhaps get annoyed that they have to buy another format of an e-book because the old one is no longer supported. Perhaps people will realize that these digital devices are designed to a particular end, which (curiously enough, and in spite of the marketing rhetoric) isn’t the emancipation of the human spirit. For sure there will always be new plastic boxes and formats – the more boxes and formats, the more media-anomie and confusion and stress and customer dissatisfaction. Perhaps, eventually, as a mature product – like PCs – they will simply become boring. But books will still be around and looking good – I hope even better. Page against the machine.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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