I am writing a lecture this week on the future history of electronic publishing and it is giving me a creepy “deja vu all over again” sort of feeling.  For a start, when I came into the publishing business in 1967, before we had an “information marketplace” and long before Publishing acquired its current low-tech reputation in the wider world, there was a wonderful certainty about publishers and the profit model.  Last week , going to and from San Francisco and reading Saul David’s splendid history of the Indian Mutiny on my Sony eBook  Reader, I was forced to think about the uncertainty of our current position.  This half-way house world of ePub cannot last, and only publishers want it to do so.  Screen reflection, no back-lighting , inadequate reproduction of maps (which could have been better than the print version) etc etc made me critical of the digital experience while enjoying the ease of use, lightness, storage space etc of my current eReading device.

There will be other devices and things will get better.  Yet we have a long way to go before we reach the certainties espoused by Sir Stanley Unwin in ” The Truth about Publishing “, which I have returned to browse while writing my talk.

Sir Stanley began his publishing career, he tells us, in January 1906, and published his great work in 1926.  The book is a wonderful testament to certainty and conviction.  He is able to describe in clause by clause detail what publishing agreements and distribution arrangements should contain.  He is absolute in his conviction that there is no acceptable manuscript which cannot be exploited a bit further through good sales arrangements in the English language world of the British Empire, or through effective translation deals at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  And “publishing” is books, as securely as for my father “hunting” was foxes.  Newspapers and magazines were clearly lesser breeds without the law.  And you will only survive if you follow Sir Stanley’s maxims: “It is easy to become a publisher but difficult to remain one; the mortality in infancy is higher than in any other trade or profession.”

I bought my copy in 1967 (the seventh edition), partly because I wanted a job at George Allen and Unwin, was rejected but advised to read the book.  When some years  later I went for a job at Cambridge University Press I was interviewed by the same individual, who had morphed from Mr into Sir Geoffrey Cass.  This time I pointed out that I had read and mastered the book.  This was of no avail in my case, but I was left with a strong idea that “scientific” publishers like these two British knights “knew” how to publish:  they had mastered the ratios and processes to the extent that they had rationalized out the dangerous tendencies (“flair” was the word which earnt special contempt) of wilful book selection and were therefore bound to make money.

When, I wondered, would this sense of certainty and exactitude reach electronic publishing?  Are there yet certain rules which, if we follow them, will keep us out of trouble, or is it inevitable that alongside the businesses dedicated to the transition of the printed book to e-devices and platforms will arise new businesses dedicated to exploiting that technology in original ways for literary, informational or aesthetic satisfaction, without the prior creation of a book?

By the end of my book publishing career in 1985, the business that Sir Stanley saw in such certain terms was beginning its long decline.  Alongside Sir Stanley on my shelves sits “In Cold Type : Overcoming the Book Crisis” by Leonard Shatzkin (celebrated father of the very excellent Mike). My copy is inscribed by the author “For David, to mark the good fortune of meeting in Santander, July12, 1985”.  The good fortune was all mine, as I quickly learnt why it was that the economic model of book publishing was falling from the trees.  And they never followed his sage advice: it is still falling, and the consolidation that removed even Sir Stanley’s old firm is still taking place. Publishers still over-publish and over-print and over-price.  Except that in this Gibbonian epic we may be past Decline and moving towards Fall – an essential step if real re-invention is to occur.


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4 Comments so far

  1. Joseph J. Esposito on February 11, 2010 04:39

    Ah, David. I am so optimistic about books. Or should we call them “long-form texts”? I don’t think the mind rejects the possibility of the extended narrative because we also have the option of episodic forms. The challenge for the book industry is to identify the audience for the future long-form texts. This may be a smaller audience than heretofore for books, but I suspect that someone will be reading Erasmus two hundred years from now.

  2. Reader Riposte: Fiji and the e-rebellion « Soli Vakasama | Educational West Virginia on February 11, 2010 05:44

    […] David Worlock | Developing digital strategies for the information … […]

  3. uberVU - social comments on February 11, 2010 10:07

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by dworlock: The long , slow , inevitable descent of book publishing http://bit.ly/92nbGA

  4. Andrew Spong on February 11, 2010 10:10

    Thanks for this piece, David. From a scholarly publisher’s perspective, e-books seem to be a great way driver of revenues for SEO-savvy pirates, but rather less effective for the publishers themselves.

    Of course, it’s not just the scholarly book’s business model that is under seige.