Arthur Attwell

How to stay in publishing in a digital world

As more and more of our world is digitised — sales, maps, encyclopaedias, books, music, phone calls, radio, TV, you name it, it travels digitally — companies constantly have to choose what to automate and what has to be done by human beings. In other words, what can be templated, and what requires project-specific creative input. This is particularly the case for publishers, who are all battling to make decisions about ebooks, and worried about their future in this digital world. Should they be getting into the IT-based, ebook-making business?

This dilemma originates from a long-standing conflation of the content publishers produce and the media in which they distribute it. Publishing people love and often mistakenly conflate two distinct things: great writing and great printing. The first is content: words (and pictures) created by human beings. The second is a medium: ink and bound paper. The relationship between the two is brokered by design, which marries content to media. (Update: the conflation of content and medium helps drive much of the creativity and passion that publishers bring to books, so it is not ‘mistaken’ as I originally wrote, though it can generate anxiety about having to work with new media.)

Digitisation, and the automation that comes with it, only offers new media, so it threatens only the printing part of a traditional publisher’s job. (I don’t know the extent of that threat; I think many printed books will be sold throughout our lifetimes.)

Technological progress always creates a flow towards automation, as creative ideas are captured in templates and automated. For instance, for most of last century type was set on typesetting machines. These machines had already automated most of a Victorian typesetter’s work, but the machine operator still had to put a lot of human creativity into producing a good-looking printed page.

Today typesetting software does most of this work; fewer and fewer designers understand kerning or know why line-height is called leading, since this is largely automated. Recently, designers working for publishers Faber and Faber developed a way to automate cover design (very beautifully) for a series of old classics. In ebooks, right now the epub ebook format is so new that some companies automate conversion to epub and others write and tweak code by hand. Before long, hardly anyone will look at the code any more; code generation will be automated by tools that allow editors and designers to focus on purely creative work. Aspects of that creative work will in turn become automated, as the endless process of automation continues.

This flow, from human creativity towards automation, is like a stream that one must keep swimming against. Only by continually moving your skills (and value-adding activities) up the flow towards its creative end can you keep your job in publishing. Any jobs at the automation end of the flow are quickly taken over by robots of one sort or another. In the same way, in order to add enough value to the publishing process to earn revenue, publishing companies have to offer creative, human input to their content. Publishing companies that skimp on this will operate closer and closer to the automation end of the flow, employ fewer and fewer highly skilled staff, and eventually become no more than data-scrubbing clearing houses.

Right now everyone’s talking about ebooks, but in several years or more, the distinction between ebooks and the web will fall away (see Kevin Kelly’s big vision for the web at TED talks, or Michael Bhaskar arguing that “Digital Books Are Already Here“). As the web continues to expand beyond the computer screen to our cellphones, appliances, cars, advertising and traffic signs, fridges, clothes, classrooms and more, the notion of distinct media will be blurred across myriad ways to deliver content. And still, content acquisition, editing, design and the continuous, creative improvement of systems will remain as important and competitive as ever.

What exactly will publishers be doing then? They’ll still be finding new authors, editing their work for new tastes, and, keeping a great many new media in mind, designing its presentation structurally and aesthetically for new fashions. The key word here is “new”. Only humans can innovate for humans. Innovation cannot be automated. Successful publishers will be companies that gather good, creative innovators. When I think of my favourite publishing companies today, that’s exactly what they do right now. For them, they should just keep doing what they’re doing already.

This is an expanded version of a comment originally posted in response to this piece by Michael Bhaskar on The Digitalist.