Publishing in the 21st century: The end of the golden weather?

I was really looking forward to this session after hearing Derek Johns speak earlier at the festival. Obviously, so were lots of other people as the Downstage Theatre, a brutalist structure that would be at home in any corner of Christchurch, was packed to the gunnels.

Noel Murphy from the New Zealand Book Council did the appropriate thing for any discussion about publishing and made sure everyone had a drink – water of course -and then abruptly copped some unnecessary flak for talking too fast. There were also some yelps about lack of volume, but as the guests were introduced – Johns (A P Watt), Michael Heywood (Text), Sam Elworthy (Auckland University Press) and Laurie Chittenden (HarperCollins) – the audience mostly composed themselves and got on with listening.

Learning about each guest’s career roles gave us an insight into the world publishing scene and a potted transtasman publishing history. The former “lucrative dumping ground” of the Australian and New Zealand market has now taken two different paths – Australia is a rights territory and does not allow parallel importing, New Zealand has no geographical rights and publishers here can potentially be competing against overseas imprints of their own works.

Murphy’s cleverly put questions gave broad scope for the panel to answer. Is this the golden age of publishing? The large number of formats and wide availability of books, plus the high levels of readership / literacy in places like New Zealand, Australia and Iceland would seem to be ideal conditions.

  • Derek Johns said silver age – very optimistic about reading, he said that digital offered a great deal of potential but there were many systemic publishing issues to be worked out. In Britain, at least, he said, people didn’t pay enough for books. The novel was a function of nineteenth-century leisure time – digital was much more flexible.
  • Michael Heywood was impressively relentless in his support of independent publishing, and authors. Festival and reading culture in this part of the world is in great shape, but at risk are quality independent booksellers and smaller publishers. The best work is done when publishing is the daily bread of a company. His summation? Golden-ish. The digital expansion will be fast  – but what was really exciting was the range of titles on best-seller lists.
  • Sam Elworthy said New Zealand publishing was exciting as in many areas there hadn’t been books published before, and that the process of finding new talent was one of discovering authors who could encourage a broad audience, even for academic subjects.
  • Laurie Chittenden also said golden, but wasn’t sure what came next.  She made the encouraging point that the American market is much more diverse now and the ‘Americanisation’ of manuscripts has largely stopped.

What would have made the session a stand out for me would have been if there were some digital books on display, or a datashow of what some of the devices look like. I’m not sure the audience would have been able to see them, or may have thought the Kindle was something you light the fire with, but that’s probably festival fatigue talking.

I’ve tried books on my iPod touch and quite like the format, and this week the number of available books overtook games  on the iTunes store. Perhaps the audience would have a better handle if they saw some of the technologies and possibilities. Audrey Niffenegger was right when she said that they are evolving quickly and are quite primitive, sneakily imitating the book, and that soon new forms would spring up for them. Being able to enlarge the text, or slow down the speed at which a book is read to you, or increase the volume – these are options that digital books offer people – this audience may have been reassured by that.

The panel were also all agreed that the publishing process was valuable for readers – the development of authors and manuscripts, the aggregation and quality assurance functions, for instance. They didn’t focus on any threat that digital might encompass, but were eager to ensure that the publishing industry – including authors and readers – had a long future yet.

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