“Its a moral and an ethical system”. Richard Charkin, in a passable imitation of the new business-like Archbishop of Canterbury, defended copyright at last week’s epic Publishers Forum in Berlin, though we all knew that he was referring to a set of trading rules which led Byron to tell his publisher, John Murray, that “Barabbas was the first publisher”. Klopotek’s Berlin show, over 250 strong this year, has become a stadium for opposing positions and sharply contrasted stances. Consider for example, the contrast between the aforesaid Mr Charkin, and Harald Greiner, his fellow opening keynoter on the first day. The Bloomsbury Executive Director remains the delightful iconoclast of his earlier years, though he moves in illustrious establishment circles as an ex President of the Publishers Association now about to become President of the International Publishers Association. A Prince amongst Publishers and our Renaissance Man, in fact, with a track record second to none in STM, reference, mass market paperback, fiction, professional, and in print and digital. Our old world looking into the new with the same passion, argumentativeness, curiosity and determination. A dealer and collaborator – his deal with Faber in drama is a clear sign of the times, as was his half-joking suggestion that Writers and Artists Yearbook was a portal for self-publishing.

Then step forward Mr Greiner. Here we saw the necessary technocrat preparing to create another world that all “publishers” (whatever that now means) increasingly recognize. Mr Greiner runs the IT infrastructure – an increasingly strategic component – of Holtzbrinck. For those of us who recall the German newspaper group, this is now a publishing corporation which owns only Die Welt, which has 75 % of its revenues outside of Germany and which has built a powerful science and education interest to replace its former news organization. With technology hubs in the US and the UK as well as in Germany, Harold Greiner’s drive was towards the industrialization and the professionalization of the industry. Older readers will recall the 1960s lament that the accountants were taking over publishing: the equivalent today is the new men of technology, and, if they are like Mr Greiner, they will be very impressive colleagues (as well as the people who return the margins to the business).

They talk the talk of services and solutions, and walk the Agile way, these New Men. Another who surfaced later on the first day was Marcello Vena, CEO of Digital Publishing from RCS Libri in Italy (think Fabbri, Rizzioli etc) Here was the Technologist as Digital Adventurer – from his eBooks Aboard experiment of making eBook reading free on the fast trains of Italy (clever marketing – get stuck in then you have to download to finish it when you arrive at your destination) to Big Jump, a joint venture with Amazon (yes, that is correct!) on a self-publishing, contest-based, crowd-reviewed platform which has generated 500 new books and 500,000 views. This excitingly followed Bob Stein, who pointed us back to the steady march of social reading , reminded us that writing will change as the Social Book becomes more important, and then pointed to the future of independent bookselling – in recommendation and review sites like www.brainpicking.com.

Day 2 set us different challenges. Put your head into 2020 and tell us what you see, the keynoters were asked. Nigel Newton, founder of Bloomsbury, saw the revival of the SME as the technology allowed small start-ups in a world where Amazon had sliced and diced the margins of big players. Francis Bennett, Deputy Chairman at Yale University Press and well-known as the creator of the book trade’s first digital metadata system, saw the role of publishing in the branded competition of universities struggling to attract research funds and grants. Monograph publishing was commercially exhausted and scholarly communication which had value needed immediate availability. Sven Fund, CEO and architect of the rebirth of Walter de Gruyter, saw focus and specialization and size as the answers to the fragmentation he saw around him, and stressed the need for partnership and technology standards in the world we are entering. Matt Turner, CTO at MarkLogic took up that theme. There was no time at which it was more important for publishers to concentrate their working capital of data on one platform, to have complete control over it and access to it, to be able to search it fluently within the platform and relate it to third party or remotely held data, and to be able to fully enhance it with semantic analysis.

And as we began to debate the future that these voices described it became ever clearer that the “publishing” community is not owned by those who self-described themselves as publishers. Baldur Bjarnason of Unbound challenged the very right of publishers to exist in a Viking raid on the high ground of publishing morality (a very different concept from that of Richard Charkin), and the Prince of Self Publishing, Hugh Howey, earnt real respect from an audience which might have felt challenged as he displayed some of the potential of self publishing, pointed out that it is a larger activity than most people think (and larger than “publishing” itself), and guided our thinking away from selection of original works and towards investing in the marketing and development of existing self-published work. And with Fionnuala Duggan and Eric Razenberg (CEO, ThiemeMeulenhoff) underscoring the revolution in education around learner-centric networks and the arrival of real personalised learning, the revolution seemed complete. Hugh Howey, Porter Anderson and Ed Nawotka ended the day in style, but the voice I recalled that night was that of Brian O’Leary. A quiet voice calling for a new architecture of Collaboration. A calm and rational presence embedded in two days of high excitement in a publishing conference that really did bring all the voices to the table.

Helmut von Berg, indefatigable organizer of this event for a decade, retires this year. He earnt the grateful thanks of all of us present in Berlin. He is succeeded by Ruediger Wischenbart and an editorial board who now know how hard it will be to improve on this.

keep looking »