How Publishing Can Disrupt Technology

  What is the most exciting technology currently disrupting the publishing industry?

bookThat was the question I found myself pondering last weekend as I sat amongst a bunch of aspiring and established authors, traditional and indie publishers, founders of literary startups, agents, editors, technologists and a few fellow hybrids of the above at The Literary Consultancy’s annual Writing In A Digital Age conference.

(That and: where can I find a velvet housecoat like the one Dorian Grey wears in Penny Dreadful? But that’s a whole other article.)

Ask the average bibliophile on the street, and they’d probably namecheck their Kindle. But although e-readers have forever changed the way we consume our books - in the opening panel, Steve Bohme from Nielsen BookData revealed that in 2013 Brits bought 10% fewer print books and 20% more ebooks than the year before - new and exciting they are not. 

The basic ability to transport thousands of tomes on one device is indisputably amazing, but the software and hardware still have a way to go. Formatting remains dodgy, ‘communal highlights’ irritate and exporting notes is a chore. A reading-specific device means yet another bit of tech in your bag, but having your novel interrupted by Twitter alerts feels deeply wrong. My compromise is an iPad Mini bristling with multi-format apps, but the lack of heft, give and texture of even the prettiest electronic slab inevitably degrades the reading experience.

There are rumours that Sony and Kobo are collaborating on a snazzy new reader using e Ink Mobius on a six inch display, but until I actually see devices that deliver on both functionality and tactility, I won’t be giving them my vote.

Self-publishing platforms, on the other hand, are a much more solid candidate. Established services such as Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Completely Novel have not only liberated authors from risk-averse, glacier-slow commercial gatekeepers and connected them directly to their readers, they’ve given designers and editors a whole new freelance marketplace. According to Bohme, self-publishing's share of the UK market grew by 79% in 2013, amounting to the purchase of 18m books.

But, although a long-tail of startups such as Softcover and Archer continue to diversify the space, self-publishing frustrates as often as it inspires. The unscrupulous exploitation of Digital Rights Management by the big boys (kicking off the conference, Cory Doctorow< delivered a rousing anti-DRM keynote) and dodgy deals offered by author-assisted services (Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, exhorted writers to read the small print) persist. Moreover, self-publishing platforms are only as exciting as the content they host, and it can be all too tempting to birth a self-published book before it has reached creative full term. There is a lot of chaff out there, and too few tools with creative rather than commercial agendas to help us harvest the wheat.

What about social media? It certainly deserves an honourable mention for services to literary word of mouth, and for providing a playground where indie collaborators, authors and readers can meet. But it is the people on the platforms, not the platforms themselves, that disrupt. The best book blogs and forums favour the simplest designs, and eight-year-old Twitter remains the most popular writers’ space. Unbound, the crowd-funding site for books, offers uniquely rewarding collaborations between the Unbound team and its authors, and those authors and their readerships; but it's pretty much a social media dinosaur by now, having been founded in 2010. 

Finally, you could make a case that digital production tools, which are facilitating the creation of transmedia storytelling projects such as Sherlock: The Network or The Live Writing Series, have game-changed our idea of what reading and writing can be. But they are still the preserve of a minority of both makers and audiences, and feel more like the emergence of a new genre than a disruption of the existing market.

So, as I sat there with my seventh cup of coffee cooling in my hands, I decided that I needed to reframe the question. 

The most exciting technology in publishing has remained consistent for centuries. It’s called the human brain. Brilliant stories - whether served up across on and offline platforms in fragmented bites or slurped in a single sitting from between the sweet-smelling covers of a hardback - have the potential to shape our world in the way that no piece of code can match. They give us the words, images and analogies that allow us to build visions of the future in our heads before we ever translate them to the dev lab.

From TS Eliot to George R R Martin, Arthur C Clarke to Hilary Mantel, authors - and the people who help nurture, polish, distribute and sell their stories - have always shaped our collective imaginations, and our collective future, as powerfully as they’ve been shaped by it.

The ancient and inherently anti-social discipline of reading a mono-media, full-length novel has more potential to disrupt the tech industry than the tech industry has to disrupt the book. An eclectic and healthy appetite for fiction should be considered a seriously desirable, if not compulsory, entry on every tech founder, CEO, VC, creative and developer's LinkedIn. 

The shorter our attention spans and the more data-led our insights, the more vital it is that we build tech companies, products and services that are steeped in humanity, empathy, real-life social wisdom and the unexpected neural connections that great stories create.

Close your browser. Go read made-up stuff.

This article originally appeared on TCN.