I really enjoyed a brief stopover in New York last week, en route to the Outsell Signature Event in Northern Virginia. It meant that I was able to respond to a kind invitation from BISG to chair a panel at their annual meeting. And it also meant that I was there on the historic day when they announced that they are moving from being the “book” industry study group to becoming the “content” industry study group. The rationale behind this was brilliantly explained by their CEO, Len Vlahos, a refreshing change from many of his contempories running trade bodies. Here was someone who saw the significance of a web of connected objects, who understood the dynamics of collaboration in the network, and was determined to position his organization at the right place to observe how the network is changing the nature of content in communication. His board, headed by the catalytic figure of Ken Michaels, currently transferring from Hachette to Macmillan, set up a study group to examine the mission of BISG itself, and here was the result, and in my view an admirable first: a trade grouping moving with the times, and not just re-branding or taking over weaker brethren.

Being there on this day was all the more interesting for me because I have always had a huge regard for BISG. When it was deeply unfashionable it positioned itself horizontally to study the supply chain, and inevitably the value chain, of the book. When I became the silent partner of Francis Bennett and David Martin in founding Book Data in the early 1990s, BISG was the only place to go to get studies of what was actually happening in the movement of knowledge and entertainment from the desk of the creator to the eyes of the user. When it comes up with a new title for itself “book” may be a casualty. No bad thing if that means we concentrate on the use and re-use of content, but I also anticipate some push back. Yet I recall that BISG is an ancestor of BIC, and thus a forerunner of the thinking that led to Editeur. If we are to have standards and benchmarks then we must have these orgnizations or others like them. Call it what you will, the BISG mission is now clearly designed around tracking content flows and what happens commercially around them. They tabled the new mission and voted for it.

In a sense therefore the panel that I moderated was a bit of an anti-climax. Ron Schlosser, representing educational companies, fully accepted the thesis that we are now entering the age of educational services and solutions. The textbook was not the answer if we wanted to respond to different speeds and characteristics of learners. How well, I thought, does the world of adaptive learning fit into the new BISG mission. Then I turned to Simon Ross, now New York resident for Cambridge University Press and a true academic publisher. He noted the tendency for students and researchers to want to search across articles and books, to make and retain their own collections of useful excerpts and references and even, I suggested, wrap them up as eBooks, which may themselves attract the IP protection of an anthology. We spoke glowingly, did Ron, Simon and I, as we moved through the prepared questions, of the world of content to come. Then we hit a reef and went down with the loss of all hands.

And the reef was the word “Never”. We had reached the very capable and highly intelligent COO of Penguin Random House, North America, Madeline McIntosh. Since I saw the book as a product format losing its primacy in educational and academic markets, it seemed at least polite if not wholly pertinent to ask about the prospects for fiction writing, and indeed the whole marketplace for non-fiction, from self-help to popular history. It was then that I learnt that the fiction market will Never change. Indeed, while Ms McIntosh’s company have self-publishing and eBook publishing properly covered, their view is that their market will never desert them, because of the respect in which they are held as selectors and editors of the very best fiction. And, that word again, readers will Never give up the fiction that they love so much.

It was no place to pursue the argument, and if time had been available I might have learnt all sorts of clever things that Penguin Random House have up their sleeves to stave off change and preserve the status quo. The novel form as a narrative seems to me to begin with Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding in the mid-eighteenth century. Much of the last century, from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf onwards was occupied in trying to blow up the form Things that have a beginning often also have an end. Did Sophocles remark to Euripides, “Well, old boy, one thing is certain. We shall always have a job because plebs will always want three act tragedy!” For this Never thing to work for fiction publishers the demographics have to be right, and I see no evidence that the form, if we discount the odd phenomena of Fifty Shades (perhaps itself a pointer to a future?), is growing or diminishing in audience. If I was working in fiction publishing, then I would want a small unit dedicated to second guessing the future – be it multiple media, narrative choice for the reader, the future of smartphone as a narrative platform or any of the other emerging network options for telling stories to each other.

And I would study closely what is happening to television, as networks become stressed by users exercising choice and making downloads a reasonable viewing option. Five years ago I was told this would Never happen. And the music industry would always go on just as before because kids would Never stop buying albums. And, as a newspaper executive once said to me, “Kids don’t read the ‘papers but everyone comes back to them in their 50s – they will never replace our position in local lives”. He has retired early and his former company is in its death throes. All the bad things that have happened to people and companies that I really respected and want to help to change are marked by that one word. Never.


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