I rather enjoyed Stephen Page’s recent comments in The Guardian about what role publishers fill in the changing world of books. Page is the publisher and CEO of Faber & Faber, an independent house in the UK, and president of the Publishers Association, so naturally he has some bias. Yet I must admit that most of his comments ring true to me. He begins:

In February 1934, Geoffrey Faber, founder of Faber & Faber, gave a lecture to the Oxford University English Club entitled “Are publishers any use?” It may come as no surprise to hear that he felt they were, despite “the modern view of a publisher as … less an arbiter of taste than a parasitic middle-man”.

This came to mind when, at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, I read an article in the Bookseller by an agent who suggested that, in the digital age, writers would no longer need publishers. They would simply post their work online with various retailers and offer their books as downloads or through print on demand. For this they would receive full value for their work, minus a (rather surprising, I thought) 20 per cent commission to the agent. He didn’t go into what the agent might do to earn 20 per cent, but he was very clear that publishers were unlikely to add value to this process.

So I am prompted to ask again: are publishers any use? What reasons do they have to exist? What will they do in the future? And, crucially, has the book entered the last phase of its physical life?

I want to begin where our industry begins: with writers. The world emerging at the start of the 21st century is full of threat to those who create. The desire to commodify all art as some form of entertainment, and the growth of a monoculture based around mass-market tastes and distribution, make many writers feel precarious. In the United Kingdom, the declining price of books is resulting in lower royalties and less range in bookshops. No wonder this prompts writers to wonder about a different model where they are more their own masters, receive fuller recognition for their work and feel less brutalised by the experience. The digital world is presented in such a utopian fashion by its evangelists that it seems to provide an alternative model. While none of us knows exactly how this future will evolve, I believe writers will be best served by continued partnership with publishers, though publishers will have to adapt, too.

Publishers are a bridge between the market and writers. While providing an expert route to creating economic value in the work (i.e., the author’s work is rewarded), they can also act as a sustaining and supporting partner.

Page concludes his piece by talking about what the future might hold for publishing:

Publishers are not book manufacturers, they are about creating businesses from reading. There will be a revolution in reading around digital technology: there already is in education and academia. But I do not believe that the much-heralded disappearance of the book will happen soon. The history of technology simply doesn’t work like that. We will have roll-up books, books on Palm organisers and iPods, mobile phones and PCs. But that is no reason to think that the parallel technology of books on paper will not continue. Also, new technology often reawakens old technology–think of the new audience for radio that has been created by the Internet.

You can read the full article here.

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