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How To Think About the Future

There are two questions that keep coming up whenever I talk to people about the future of publishing:

• What does the future of the publishing industry look like?
• What will books look like in the future?

Not really surprising, considering I spend most of my time talking to publishers, writers and booksellers about digital technology.

If I was asked to characterise the mood in trade publishing right now, I’d say it’s a bit like a party a few seconds after a power cut. Some people have run off to find torches and candles, some have huddled round the few remaining oil lamps in the garden, but most are still standing around, holding their half-empty glasses and getting cold. They’re just starting to wonder how long it’s going to last and whether it’s worth hanging around for the DJ to come back on or if they should take this opportunity to call it a night and go home.

I think this is largely because these are the wrong questions. What we should be asking is:

• How can technology make life better for writers and readers?
• How can we help?

That is not to say that there haven’t been some very intelligent, and prescient, attempts to see what the future might bring. As Michael Bhaskar notes in his blog for BookBrunch, you can hardly move in publishing without being hit in the retina by some new article or think-piece on this very subject.

Everyone has had a go at predicting the future of publishing but they are all basically (with a few notable exceptions: Sara Lloyd, James Bridle, one or two others) asking the same questions and falling into the same traps.

Penguin has made a good stab at creating some new book-type things for the iPad (unveiled by CEO John Makinson) and they look interesting enough, but saying that they are re-inventing books with this stuff is just silly. They’re starting to explore some of the more obvious possibilities of different formats for digital books and how you can interact with them using a touch screen and embedded media. They are starting to ask how the technology can make things better for readers, but only in quite a narrow sense.

The more interesting questions are only being asked at the moment by some very fringe players, such as the Institute for the Future of the Book, Book Two, APT Studios/Enhanced Editions, Glasshouse Books and Completely Novel, et cetera. Amazon and Google are making moves in the background which may have seriously disruptive effects on the industry, but even they are not really trying to invent the future of reading, writing and publishing. They are just trying to facilitate supply and satisfy demand. if:book is trying to show all the different things a ‘book’ can be in the digital world, how it can be a social thing, a networked thing, a multimedia thing, and a collaborative thing. Glasshouse is trying to explore how a publisher can really be a reading group, and a community, not just a printer or an imprint. Completely Novel is looking at it very differently again and seeing whether the community can put the tools of publishing in the hands of every writer.
These are the kinds of experiment that will lead to the future of publishing, because they are not really about publishing at all. They are about writing and reading. Extrapolating from what we know now, what we assume now about the future, will not work. Only the vision and courage to ask deeper questions about the more fundamental changes that are coming will help us to prepare for the future we don’t yet know.

So, if I were in publishing now, I’d be watching what these entrepreneurs and thinkers are doing, and not trying to copy them, but trying to think like them. Because they understand how to think about the future. A lot of their experiments will fail, and a lot of their business models will collapse, but they are the ones who are going to change the future of reading and writing, and the future of publishing. You just don’t know it yet.

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