A snapshot and a double love letter: to Tyneside and to “Publishing”

As part of their studies, publishing MA students from Kingston University recently produced a “blook” Snapshots: BookMachine on Digital, Discoverability and Collaboration, based on posts from the BookMachine Blog. Like all good publishers-in-training they spotted an opportunity for a party. That’s how I wound up, as one of the bloggers quoted, speaking at their book launch last week. My talk, inspired by 27 years in publishing and a recent visit to Thinking Digital, drew a parallel between the economic regeneration of Tyneside and the book industry. Several people have asked me to post the text. So here’s a lightly modified and hopefully more reading-appropriate version…

When Sam contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to find a “snapshot” of the publishing industry and talk about it for five minutes, I wasn’t worried about agreeing. Compared to some of the other stuff I’ve done over the past couple of years it didn’t sound too much of a stretch. So I offer you two free takeaways to start with.
#1. Never say yes without assessing the scale of the problem.
#2 . There’s no such thing as the perfect visual metaphor.

The more I thought about what kind of image would work for this task, the more worried I became for a number of reasons, not least because just one image as a snapshot of all of publishing from Caxton to penny dreadfuls, from Catherine Cookson to academic journals; an industry that’s been going for over 400 years, touching so many aspects of intellectual life… well that’s a huge challenge. Add in the fact that we’re now dealing with change at Moore’s Law rates of transformation, and it seems impossible. Also if you’ve read the “blook” we’re celebrating tonight, you’ll see I’m on record as saying I think the boundaries of our industry are going to have to blur. But since when were blurred holiday snaps any fun?

The more I thought about all this, the more worried I became. All the images coming to mind were heavily negatively freighted. Coming up with an image that’s a real downer is hardly a winning strategy for making friends and influencing people, and definitely infra dig at a book launch. But still, the pictures forcing their way into my imagination included:

  • A bubble – to represent the elitism, privilege and non-inclusiveness of “traditional book publishing”. A variation on that of course is the ivory tower, to represent intellectual separation from the real world.
  • A collection of white ping pong balls with one coloured one, to represent the woeful under representation of people from non-white-and-middle-class backgrounds in publishing.
  • A picture of Hadrian’s Wall, to represent how closed publishing as a business is to ideas and influences from other commercial and non-commercial sectors. How many people from outside publishing or bookselling do we invite to speak and inspire us at our “digital” conferences?
  • A mirror, to represent how self-reflective and complacent the traditional publishing industry is, even when it is talking about its developments and experiments with new technologies. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

There was a real downward thought spiral going on here.  So in a desperate attempt to halt it, I tried the crowdsourcing option on Twitter by asking Twitter friends “can you suggest an image that represents the book industry?” This was when things rapidly went from bad to worse. It turns out my twitter chums can be an unhelpful crew in a crisis. One offered an image of King Cnut; another suggested a shot of excel spreadsheets, or possibly even mail merge. James Kelleher tweeted a cartoon depicting a board room conversation deciding on a strategy of “wishing the internet would go away” and the ever-helpful Sam Missingham offer offered Chris McCrudden’s snap of a Venn diagram showing the tiny intersection between books we want to read and books we are prepared to pay for. David Northcott proposed the scene from 2001 where the monkeys are faced with the monolith from the future. I was implying a similar response to digital.  Tsunami-like wasteland was Tim Footman’s contribution. So all in all, you’ll understand that it was with a growing sense of panic that I boarded a train northwards (launch party -2 days) to attend the Thinking Digital conference in at the Sage, Gateshead, still without asnapshot to offer tonight. I have been known to leave things to the last moment, but even by my own hair-raising standards this was cutting it fine.

Having grown up in the North East, I was heading back to my spiritual home, and I should have known it would provide the answer for me.  After the first full day of the conference I was chatting with other Thinking Digital delegates about the problem, whilst enjoying a beer and Mexican food in sunshine on the Newcastle quayside (yes, Newcastle in mid-May, eating outside without freezing). This was launch party -<2

4hours. One of the group suggested a phoenix. Which was aside from the potential for a Bookmachine Eurovision moment was by far the best suggestion so far.  Also the Phoenix is an image that had a lot of resonance for me at that moment because early that morning I instagrammed an image of Newcastle quayside in glorious sunshine, bustling with life, activity and optimism, with the Sage presiding magnificently from the Gateshead side of the river.

When I was a teenager growing up in Northumberland, I had to promise not to go to quayside if I was to be “allowed out” to Newcastle. The Quayside was a rough, tough, dirty dangerous place. And no-one I knew ever went over the river to Gateshead unless they absolutely had to.  How times change. So here you are: my modest little snapshot of publishing: Tyneside taken in fading light at about 8.30pm the night before the book launch.

Why? After all, Newcastle’s hardly the London or Oxford publishing scene

The Tyneside I grew up knowing was dominated and near destroyed by the demise of its traditional legacy industries. The region was socially riven by the miner’s strike, and many of us under 20 couldn’t imagine a future in the region.  In this snapshot are four bridges: the Tyne Bridge, the Swing Bridge, Robert Stephenson’s High Level Bridge, and the Metro Bridge each representing a part of Tyneside’s history. On the south river bank is the fabulous Sage Gateshead. Taking the photo I was standing on the beautiful, elegant and clever Milennium Bridge, in the heart of what is now a tourist hotspot. This is a snapshot of Tyneside past, present and potential.

Publishing as most of us “in our industry” know it is a legacy business, which, when viewed in the context of trends in the wider economy, has strong parallels with the Tyneside of my youth. We remain dominated by old business models, out of date processes, inadequate business information systems and out-of-date technologies; we have a false belief in our own invincibility and we face a relevant skills deficiency of monumental proportions.

As I was growing up, Tyneside was gradually realising that for decades too long it had been blind to the fact that the region’s entire economy was dangerously dependent on the dying heavy industries of coal, steel and shipbuilding. The rest of the world had moved on while Tyneside stayed rooted in its industrial past.

And yet…. last week I was back on Tyneside at the best-organized conference it has ever been my privilege to attend, in the company of some seriously talented individuals, many of whom are working on the technologies and ideas that will shape all of our futures, and none of whom work in the Publishing Industry as we know it, although some of them are publishers and content strategists. In 48 hours we went from 3-d printing on the moon, to global monitoring of pathogens; from how to manage digital teams, to artificial intelligence; from making music from the human genome, to the threat of a complete loss of privacy in the digital world… and many fascinating, scary and exciting places besides.

Co-incidentally at a presentation the morning after that tweet, Mark Dearnley, Chief Digital and Information Officer at HMRC described HMRC  (with some clear justification) as “the third largest publisher in the country”.

Thinking Digital takes place in the Sage – a brilliantly equipped modern event venue and public space on what was until recently “the wrong side of the river.” Thirty years ago, the possibility that such an event would grow and prosper on Tyneside in a venue of that quality would have been completely unthinkable.

Over recent decades, Tyneside has been through a death and a fire of rebirth, just like the phoenix suggested to me by my Thinking Digital co-delegates. To do this, the region has had to dare to re-imagine and resurrect itself as part of a diverse, exciting, technologically engaged and globally connected business and intellectual community.  It hasn’t been plain sailing.  The finance and service sector initially replaced coal, steel and shipbuilding. Then call-centres were outsourced to India and then the banking collapse regionally embodied in Northern Rock, brought fresh employment carnage.  That’s a salutary reminder that there are no perfect solutions to the challenges of change and progress and nor are there permanent solutions to the challenges of change and progress.

Tyneside still faces huge economic and social challenges. But it has a sense of direction, it has inspiration, it has fire, it has ambition, it values its heritage and it looks forward to its future.  Publishing can do all that too.  If we are smart, and if we act fast, if we open our doors wide and get involved with other sectors and build partnerships we can address our legacy problems. We can stop thinking of ourselves as “apart” from the rest of the commercial world and become part of the wider entrepreneurial culture. We can self-consciously and deliberately blend or blur our businesses with the world “outside publishing”.

But do be warned. To get to its rebirth, Tyneside’s self-concept had to be almost completely destroyed. Whether the industry we so love has to take the same painful journey is entirely in our hands.

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