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Looking upstream

Our Founding Editor Sophie Rochester spoke at the Society of Bookmen in September 2012. This is the transcript of her speech…

In 2009 we started setting up The Literary Platform in an attempt to try to plot some of the most interesting things happening at the intersection of books and technology. When the site went live in April 2010, we were inundated by kind messages from publishers, academics and developers around the world. One of these messages came from Bob Stein, the American publisher and founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, an American academic research project. When we met in London that year, Stein donated a short piece of audio for the site, which was a two-minute recording of Douglas Adams in 1993 giving his vision of the evolution of the book.

In the recording, Adams says:

“All the things anybody liked about previous types of books – pictures, text, scrolling, page turning – could be modelled in software and you could take as many books as you wanted, anywhere you liked.”

Hearing the words of Douglas Adams’ vision for a future book format – recorded nearly 20 years ago – was a sharp reminder that while the discussion around digital publishing had certainly been amplified by the arrival of the Kindle, the innovative thought around imagining how the print book might evolve had been circulating for decades, and long before our careers in publishing had even started.

Today, suddenly, everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the future of the book, and the business of books itself is under scrutiny. In his book The Merchants of Culture, John B Thompson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, demonstrates how digital has pushed the business of books into the limelight. Thompson believes that the industry is at its most critical juncture since its inception, and well worth anyone’s time trying to understand it.

Perhaps this surge of interest is why often we hear (perhaps more often than not from those outside the industry) that “Publishers Should Experiment More”, but if we look at the last 24 months we’ve plenty of experimentation emanating from the publishing industry – publishers, agents, retailers alike: experimentation in business models, partnership development, in form, in developing IP in-house, in developing digital product, in trialing lists DRM-free, in developing communities around genre rather than imprint, and more. Publishers are working hard to understand the near future markets.

If we look at the devices themselves we sense that these will date quickly: the Kindle, a device so literal in its translation from book to ebook, but adopted by many as its creators had correctly anticipated what the market was ready for. Even Apple’s design team in creating iBooks has kept to quite a literal and skeuomorphic design, representing the print book and bookshelves. There is a sense we’re living through a transitional phase.

So the publishing industry is given a huge challenge: not only does it have to nurture its still majority print market, it also has to nurture this new ebook and digital product market. Meanwhile, it is constantly reminded to keep one eye on the future and on the nature of storytelling itself – all in a very tough economic climate.

As the BBC’s Technology Writer Bill Thompson put it recently on the BBC World Service’s Click:

“We’re figuring out how we want to use (these devices) and how all these screens fit together. There is a whole load of experimentation: people are trying out different things to see what sticks and what works.”

He continues:

“Just like the book evolved over hundreds of years, so the way we use these screens is going to evolve (probably over five years instead of 500 years) but it is going to evolve really quickly.”

The cost of this experimentation is high: normally high investment for no predictable return on investment, often with projects not even giving publishers the answers that they’re looking for.

Earlier this year, Thomas Leliveld from the Berlin-based company Txtr came to our FutureBook Innovation Workshop to give his thoughts on the European ebook market. Having just heard from some quite innovative projects, Thomas said:

“These talks remind me that we must keep an eye on what is happening upstream”

This simple statement highlights one of the challenges: how much attention should we give to innovation happening ‘upstream’, and how do we anticipate at what point these innovative projects will turn into potentially commercial ones? Can the publishing industry get more involved with what’s happening upstream?

In considering the ‘upstream’, it’s interesting to look at which groups are truly free to experiment without worrying about ROI or the bottom line. Those in this privileged position appear to either be:

– An academic institution or publicly-funded project.

– A group of technologists for whom experimentation making use of their skillset so the main investment is their time, already used to using iterative processes and applying minimum viable product approaches

We have only to look at what’s happening at places like MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to see how integrated the future of the book is with the future of everything – and how the unique creative freedom that MIT has can generate commercial ideas and thought.

MIT is the American research university where Tim Berners-Lee developed the concept of the World Wide Web. Joseph Jacobson was at MIT’s Media Lab when he developed the first e-ink, now widely used in e-readers. Allegedly MIT is even the institution that coined the phrase “disintermediation” at the dawn of investigating the implications of e-commerce.

Its mission statement reads:

“The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century – whether the focus is cancer, energy, economics or literature.”

Currently MIT houses not only a Center for Future Storytelling lab, but also the ICE lab for “imagination, computation and expression” and most recently it acquired the Electric Literature Organisation formally based on the west coast, as well as the huge range of courses at its Literature faculty. Interestingly over the last 25 years, roughly three quarters of MIT’s undergraduates have studied literature, and MIT encourages inter-disciplinary approaches to solving problems.

Frank Moss, Former Director of MIT MediaLab, reflects in his book The Sorcerers and their Apprentices:

“Media Lab faculty members continually implore their students to take risks – to let their imaginations soar and take full advantage of the extraordinary creative freedom that exists at the Media Lab. This creative freedom, a rarity in the world of institutional research today, is possible at the Media Lab for a single reason. The corporations who sponsor the lab are not looking to us for solutions to specific problems they may have, nor are they prospecting for intellectual property that they can expeditiously turn into next quarter’s product introduction; Instead, they are seeking something much more important: the chance to ‘drink from a hose of imaginative ideas and inventions’, most of which appear at first to be unrelated to their core businesses, but some of which eventually translate into innovations that have a profound impact on people, business, or society.”

Clearly MIT’s thinking is that in order to experiment creatively you have to somehow free yourself from thinking commercially, even if benefits to an industry might come much further down the line. Not an easy task when you have an existing business to run.

Others enjoying this creative freedom are the start-ups and technologists who can simply play around with developing ideas cheaply, where the only risk they take is their own time.

We don’t yet have an equivalent to MIT in this country – the closest institution with most relevant research to the publishing industry would probably be Plastic Logic at Cambridge University – but where else might the publishing industry benefit from academic and public-funded activity?

In the UK we are seeing leaps in interdisciplinary approaches to research in the area of literature and technology, and these courses are all keen to understand how this research might impact on the commercial sector.

These are just a few examples of things happening in the UK:

REACT is a collaboration between the Universities of the West of England, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter and Watershed Arts Trust. REACT’s aims are:

  • To develop strategic partnerships with creative businesses and cultural organisations
  • To strengthen and diversify their collaborative research activities

Hachette is already involved with REACT, with George Walkley acting as mentor on the scheme, which is great to see – and I’m sure more publishers will also be getting involved here.

Just announced this summer is CREATe, a pioneering initiative to support the growth of the UK’s vital creative industries and arts sector. The Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy will examine “a range of issues relating to new digital technologies with a view to meeting some of the central challenges facing the UK’s creative economy”. CREATe is based at the University of Glasgow, leading a consortium of seven Universities: the University of East Anglia, the  University of Edinburgh, Goldsmiths (University of London), the University of Nottingham, the University of St. Andrews and the University of Strathclyde.

The University of Brighton is home to C21, the first research centre in the world dedicated to the study of 21st-century writings, and a hub for Contempo, a collaborative, cross-institutional research centre.

Recently NESTA, Arts Council England and Arts and Humanities Research Council, announced its £7million R&D fund encouraging collaboration between the arts, digital technology providers and the research community in order to undertake experiments from which the wider arts sector can learn.

This week Will Self has been talking at the London Review of Books bookshop about his recent experimentation with developers on a future digital literature essay – one of several literature-related projects made possible by The Space initiative, an £8 million collaboration between the BBC and Arts Council England.

These are just a few examples of where the commercial, the academic and public-funded institutions appear already to be working more closely together.

As CREATe points out on its site:

“The UK has probably the largest creative sector in the world relative to GDP, accounting for over 6% of the overall economy and contributing around £60Bn per annum. However, building a business, cultural and regulatory infrastructure that can spark innovation, capitalise on new revenue streams and harness the potential of new and emerging technologies are challenges that face the sector as it aims to maintain the UK’s global leadership in this field.”

Let’s hope that this crucial combination of publishers looking further ahead to the future, and academics trying better to understand the commercial pressures, might clear a path to face some of these future challenges together.

Sophie Rochester is Founder of The Literary Platform. This talk was first given to the Society of Bookmen.

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