It was almost May. The asparagus is just arriving and the rhubarb at its best. This can only be the backdrop for the annual Publishers Forum in Berlin, now celebrating its 12th year and consistently performing as the focus for publishing discussion in central Europe, and celebrating the global view Europeans now take of publishing in all its forms and marketplaces. This show is put on by Klopotek for the industry it serves, which is a service that its industry should appreciate With some 260 delegates from Germany and central Europe, that appreciation certainly seems to be in place. This year’s theme “How to Reconstruct Publishing: Competing Visions, Channels and Audiences”, was the first under the direction of Dr Ruediger Wischenbart, but was as typically challenging as ever. A real debate about where we are going is still hard to find.

In a typically stirring piece in Scholarly Kitchen this week Joe Esposito (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/05/04/the-half-life-of-print/) made the point that whenever we debate the future of publishing someone stands up and asks about the future of the book. I agree with him, and I find this as annoying and pointless as he does. Quite apart from the fact that print has disappeared in very many contexts in society, the digitally networked world releases us from this fruitless debate by the promise of being able to deliver anything to anyone at the point of use in their preferred medium. Ergo, print will survive where people value it and disapear entirely where they do not – yellow pages, trade maggazines, academic journals, newspapers…? Well, you see what I mean. Joe makes the point that digital publishing has not yet been kind to coffee table artbooks, so I was interested to hear Rolf Grisebach, CEO at Thames and Hudson, give one of the opening keynotes in Berlin.

His not-unreasonable argument turned on the large file size and lack of a decisive advantage in image viewing that digital currently offers users of art books. In last weeks’ piece in this place I pointed to the virtual reality benefits of displaying architecture online, as practiced by the New York Times. I would like art publishing that allowed me to focus on the eyes of the artist and then move me through a slide show of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in chronological order. I would like a virtual reality tour of Christopher Wren. I have the Waste Land app on my iPad and I am a customer for new approaches to valuing art, literature, architecture and music in a digital age. Here I think we can do more, though I was very grateful to Rolf for re-awakening memories of his company founder, Walter Neurath, and for reminding me that the company is named for its two founding cities, London and New York.

In some ways there was more comfort for the progressives in the next keynote, from Jacob Dalborg, the CEO of Bonnier Books. Here was an integrated vision which sounded like an investible business plan on the one hand, while stressing the way the digital world makes marketing to niches more potentially profitable than ever before. Any session that hammers home the need to build and exploit metadata and expand metadata values must be of prime importance today. With global standard expertise on the agenda (Graham Bell, Director of Editeur) this conference could hardly be accused of ducking the issue, but I still feel that we see this as “marketing utilities” and it always gets sidelined when we talk “creativity”. Well, if you want to create markets there is no more important subject, and it was good to see Jacob Dalborg underlining it.

This conference does bilingual brilliantly, but it also does breakout sessions that create wonderful debate but mean I lose some agenda items. Thus I really wanted to hear Publishing goes Pop: instead I moderated a session with a small group in which a very valuable discussion took place. Across the table was an Open Access STM publisher from Poland and a consumer publishing marketing executive from Germany. The others at the table were left to listen as these two set out to demonstrate the parallels in their very different specialities and effectively draw together the themes of the conference. This was the antidote to any idea that publishing is pulling apart. Indeed, at the end of this I was convinced that the digital network is helping publishing of all types re-focus on the user, and services to the user, in a way that in the world of physically formatted publishing we could only pay lip service.

And of course we had some technology, but it is now noticeable that we do not talk “tech” to these audiences at all. Matt Turner, CTO at MarkLogic, talks about flexibility, about speed of new product generation, and, in this agenda, putting content and context into action. It remains a surprize to many of us that publishers seem to set so much value on creative content, understandably, while according such reduced value to the contextual data about customers and how they use content in general, and their own content in particular. Meanwhile, Steve Odart of IXXUS moved us into a consideration of how we run our businesses and how we innovate when he took the Agile project management philosophy away from tech and into business as a way of working creatively in digital marketplaces.

Two days and we did not even get a stroll in the park – though perhaps that was what we enjoyed in the sort of company which is thinking seriously, not about the book, but about where publishing goes now.

keep looking »