An Earthquake in the Petrified Forest

How Digital Publishing is Evolving in the Book Industry

by Dan Franklin

PART 1: Caught Between Worlds

On 23rd November I gave a talk to the Royal College of Art’s Book Futures Lab and their Ecologies of Publishing Futures event (have a look at #bookfutures on Twitter). I was asked if I’d publish it for further consideration so I’ve split it into three parts, and it is being published on here today, tomorrow and Friday. I’ve tidied up the talk a little, inserting hyperlinks where relevant, but I’ve left it largely in its original form to be read aloud, not strictly intended as a written essay. My brief was to provide a provocation for the event on the state of digital publishing — so it is really a where-we-are-now overview to provoke discussion and invite debate. Let us know what you think @PRHDigital or @digitaldanhouse

I’ve made the title of this talk a slight adaptation of a statement the author Arthur Koestler made about the novel The Inheritors by William Golding. He described the book as ‘an earthquake in the petrified forests of the English novel’. For many people who watch and comment about the publishing industry, the earthquake is digital publishing, and the petrified forest — in the sense of ossified and frozen in time, and indeed, terrified — is the ‘traditional’ publishing industry. ‘Traditional’ in quotation marks so that it is demarcated from the non-traditional industry that is evolving and growing in (somehow) a more ‘native’ way out of the digital ecosystem from which it is emerging.

Golding’s novel was his second following Lord of the Flies, published in 1955; he’d written it fast and came to regard it as his best, along with many critics. It concerns a small group of Neanderthal men and women, and their encounter with a larger group of Homo sapiens. Through the collision of the former and the latter — with their superior grasp of technology, the weapons and modes of transport they have fashioned — the book depicts the confrontation of one species with the more highly evolved one that would supersede it, and inherit the earth from them.

What makes the novel fascinating is that it portrays a period of transition and handing over — a historical moment of co-existence. In his introduction to the book, the critic John Carey cites the fact that the new people carrying off a Neanderthal baby at its conclusion gives hope that Neanderthals may survive in us. He points to recent research into the Neanderthal genome at Germany’s Max Planck Institute which revealed that up to four per cent of human DNA comes from Neanderthals. In Western Europe Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived side by side for thousands of years.

What is happening in the trade book publishing industry right now is a similar period of co-existence: the print book and digital incarnations of it (particularly ebooks) not only live side by side, but can thrive off each other. This is fascinating when you consider the fears around ‘cannibalisation’ of one format by another when ebooks first emerged. What I want to relate today are my impressions of this moment in time, which is both exciting and demoralising, urgent and confusing, depending on your standpoint.

When I refer to the publishing industry as ‘petrified’ I’m taking a position I don’t endorse. I think publishing is slippery, chaotic, inherently entrepreneurial, actually quite an alchemical practice which the industry is striving to make more scientific as we become much more focused on any data and insight that can tell us more about who we are selling books to, and our access to a satisfactory or deficient amount of both those things.

I’m Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House, which means I lead a digital publishing team that motivates itself to explore the bleeding edge of this publishing transformation. In essence we are fascinated by ebooks, apps, new web technologies and the promise of the digital future of the book; but the resilience of the old ways — particularly the physical book — means we have to consider how they intermingle. How are digital tools to be used to make the most out of physical objects? What happens when Homo sapiens and Neanderthals inter-breed?

This is also demonstrative of Riepl’s Law, coined by Wolfgang Riepl — a Nuremberg newspaper editor — in 1913: that new, further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms.

What I’ve seen during 2015 are some interesting and willful misinterpretations of what’s going on in publishing driven by the concerns and misgivings of established players who are fetishizing print objects. The fact is that most publishers, and especially those whose stock in trade is black and white narrative fiction and non-fiction, are seeing 25% + of their revenues coming via digital and the vast majority of that coming from ebooks. This process is not going to reverse.

Ebook growth has slowed down, but it’s slowed down from triple digit growth year-on-year. There are plenty of books with half their readership reading them on ipads, kindles, mobile phones. I love print books too, and new kinds of behaviour that see readers switch up between formats depending on the circumstances — but I understand what’s happening here, and we shouldn’t be confused about it. The huge amount of time that people are spending online, and the proportion of it which now occurs on mobile devices, points to only one trajectory for every media distributor out there. But the digital takeover hasn’t happened as rapidly as many expected and that’s testament to what a formidable piece of technology print books are.

This prolonged moment of convergence led my team to run a workshop earlier this year at SXSW in Austin, Texas about how digital might influence the future of print books. The context is the widespread conversation about the enlivening of dumb objects via what writer Kevin Ashton has coined ‘the Internet of things’. It was prompted by a project called ‘A Touch of Fry’ undertaken by the university of Dundee in response to a challenge we set, where they used conductive ink technology to make touch sensitive points on a hardback copy of Stephen Fry’s last memoir, More Fool Me. I encourage you to look at this ‘co-creation’ initiative where we worked with wetransfer to make elements of the text, images and audio available to creatives to render in whatever form they chose –- events were run from the V&A, to India and Israel, from hack spaces to electronic music conferences. The results can be seen at yourfry.com.

Last year I debated with Will Self at Cheltenham Literary Festival about whether the novel form was essentially over when it was separated from its means of (print) production, what he calls the ‘codex’. In an article from the Guardian last year titled ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s real)’ Will states, ‘I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.’

I think it’s possible to proffer robust arguments against this — look at the fact that the Ancient Greek tragedies of the Oresteia by Aeshylus and Medea by Euripides have been performed across two theatres in London this Autumn, some 2,500 years after they were originally performed. We’re a long way from the Dionysia Festival in 450 BC, baby. Innovative at the time, these plays continue to be reinterpreted and modernised for their era of latest production.

This example might suggests classical forms transcend their original means of transmission. Look to Netflix — look at Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, the streaming service’s first feature film (which did struggle to find favour with cinema presentations for that reason). Ultimately, has the word processor stopped writers continuing and developing the novel form? No. As Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone, said the other week after winning the Goldsmiths Prize, an award specifically established to reward innovation in the novel: ‘if the novel lacks innovation we’re fucked’.

Video didn’t kill the radio star, and Kindles won’t kill the novelist. Quite the opposite. Amazon has re-intermediated the relationship between authors and their readership. In fact, with Kindle Direct Publishing and the self-publishing movement more broadly, something more radical is occurring — the readers have become the authors. The promise of digital is in immediate mass participation and (crucially in the case of a platform like Wattpad) feedback. The gap between the producer and audience is collapsed and then flipped. With these reversals, the analysis of this ecology might suggest that time is up for a publishing industry that was born in Frankfurt 500 years ago and continues to revisit the city at the Book Fair every October.

The book publishing industry is frequently charged with being slow to innovate because it strives to preserve its ‘traditions’ — that it is ‘the establishment’ sustained by ‘elitism’. What I want to say about elitism is that it is misused as a term: in the sense of professional, ‘elite’ sport, any act of filtering and judicious selection is inherently ‘elitist’. What it really is about is a publisher wanting to publish what it sees as the best books for its business. It’s in the interest of no team to pull up the drawbridge, if they rely on a selection of performers it’s because the team works — but eras change and writers transfer out and get bought in. I’ve worked in publishing for almost eleven years now and it amazes me how driven and passionate the employees of these companies are by what they publish, and the remarkable lack of cynicism, even when a project is overtly commercial.

What digital has enabled is more diversity of voices — it narrows the space between creator and audience to almost nothing and demands that they interact. Established authors feel compelled to respond directly to what that audience expects, whether on Twitter or live in the flesh at the festivals that are proliferating year on year, or the live events publishers curate.

I am a huge fan of Limmy, a comedy writer, music producer and programmer who has masterfully originated material via the web and online networks for years in the form of podcasts, web cams, short films and social media. But it was when our Enterprises team organised a tour for his story collection Daft Wee Stories that he toured the country meeting his readership, reading and then doing a Q&A. For all his achievements, he refers back to that couple of weeks as a magical period in his career. I’m not surprised that the BBC chose to capture the event as a part of their Edinburgh Festival coverage.

At the same time, in the way A&R men would sign a band with an audience, publishers are capitalising on newly minted Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and Youtube superstars. The ‘New Celebrity’ can be alienating if you’re over thirty, but it’s very real — it gets over-subscribed signings shut down and police called to bail out the star in question. And, ironically at first glance, it sells shedloads of print books. We shouldn’t resist this: sixteen year-olds are the bottom-up drivers of culture — as such they are never wrong, if you disagree you’re (we’re) just getting too old. But it’s not surprising if you think about it: an artefact that can be signed is a physical marker of a fan’s relationship with the subject — and it prompts bigger questions about what physical objects might be used as treasures of fandom in our online lives. This is an interesting anomaly to the trajectory of progress I mentioned at the outset. I wonder how many others there will be.

Tomorrow, in part 2!: whither the future of ‘interactive’ literature, the Touch Press pivot, and what kinds of reading experiences we should be designing for the future.

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