Last night at the ICA, Roy Greenslade, Professor of Journalism at City University and Guardian Media columnist, spelled out the crisis in the newspaper industry:
“In newspapers – but not books – print will die, and is in the process of dying.”
In that one sentence he summed up not just the challenge facing every newspaper in the country but the gloomy mood of the entire panel. Attending the Paywalls, ebooks and the death of print debate was like listening to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. There was plenty of debate about why and how newspapers find themselves in crisis and how they might crawl out of it but, despite explorations into paywalls, readers’ clubs, philanthropic funding or just keeping your fingers crossed that there will be enough online advertising revenue, no-one seemed to know the answer. Result: a depressing evening.
And what of book publishing? Two members of the panel – publishing old-hand and author Andre Schiffrin and HarperCollins’ digital director David Roth-Ey – represented that quarter, but we didn’t learn very much.
Schiffrin, while claiming not to be a luddite, seemed not to have engaged with how technology works, or how people use it. His statement
“People are not going to read War and Peace on the Kindle”
infuriated me, and one of my colleagues. I may never read Tolstoy’s classic but I’m much more likely to read it because of the Kindle. The technology means I can carry it around easily, have other books with me if I want to take a break from it and, what’s more, I can get it for free. I’m going to download it now, just to prove the point. As for my colleague, he is already reading it on his iPhone (though that seems a bit extreme even to me…).
Roth-Ey had a novel take on the much-criticised speed (or rather lack of it) of the book publishing industry. He viewed this as an advantage, giving publishers time to “set out and chart a path to try and protect our content”. In terms of his own organisation’s strategy he referred to Amazon’s Kindle Singles concept and said HarperCollins were also exploring short-form ebooks. Aside from short fiction he raised the idea of working with journalists to provide expanded versions of longer articles, “which someone might be willing to pay 59 pence for”. For mainstream ebooks they are making use of multimedia, for example including film clips of Russell Brand in place of a plate section in the print version of Booky Wook 2. And overall, they’re building in digital publishing right at the start of the ‘book’ process, working with authors “at the point of acquisition”. Interesting but not mind-blowing.
When asked from the floor about views five years into the future, Roth-Ey perhaps made the most important comment of the night:
“It is difficult to predict the change because it is being driven by the technology companies not the content companies.”
If we had had a representative from a technology company on the panel perhaps we would have had a better idea of how consumers use technology and a less gloomy outlook overall.