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Whose Book Is it Anyway?

Janis Jefferies
Sarah Kember

Part I. Opening out the Copyright Debate: Open Access, Ethics and Creativity

4. Are Publishers Worth it? Filtering, Amplification and the Value of Publishing

Michael Bhaskar

Texte intégral

Publishers in Peril…

1Publishers often take it for granted that they are worth it. Authors are sometimes more sceptical.

  • 1 ‘The World’ s 57 Largest Book Publishers, 2015’, Publishers Weekly, 26 June 2015, http://www.publi (...)

2While this has arguably been true for centuries, now an ensemble of technological, cultural and business innovations mean the monopoly control that professional publishers exerted on the activity of publishing is crumbling. The question ‘are publishers worth it?’ has accordingly transitioned from abstract concern to genuine worry. This is potentially a disaster in slow motion. No fewer than 23 publishers have revenues of over $1 billion.1 But if publishers cannot prove they are worth it then, for perhaps the first time, there are other options. Forces beyond their control now threaten the business models that sustained them for generations. Publishers today need to justify their existence. Can they do this? If so, how? Are publishers worth it?

3Self-publishing is hardly new. The shift is that the Internet and more specifically Internet-based platforms, of which Amazon is the most notable, now provide realistic outlets. Publishers used to be a critical component in the distribution of text — the crucial link between writers on the one hand, and bookshops or distribution centres on the other.

4Without publishers, distributing work at scale and finding the right customers was always going to be tricky, even if you had somehow managed to print large amounts of your work and funded an extensive marketing campaign. The infrastructure of distribution remained in the hands of publishers. Platforms such as Kindle Publishing Direct, and at a deeper level the entire open publishing architecture of the Internet, threaten to upend this. Giant web platforms aggregate potential readerships in a way only previously possible through mass media, and mass media was better accessed via publishers than direct. Theoretically, distribution is no longer a complex series of tightly managed intermediaries. It is open to anyone with the nous and desire to see their work reach an audience.

5Even if the reality is often more ambiguous than this picture, it still threatens the idea of professionalised institutions designed to do the work of distribution. It opens the market for publishing to non-publishers. Classical economics suggests this will have consequences: an increase in competition on this scale cannot leave markets unscathed. Furthermore, the mechanism by which publishing has managed its monetisation — intellectual property — is undergoing its own revolution. The roots are to some extent shared. The Internet’s openness and the limitless capacity of digital technology to produce copies has spurred interest in new forms of intellectual property. These upend assumptions that until recently were baked into our conceptions of a publisher.

  • 2 Martin Eve, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future (Cambridge: Cam (...)

6Open access (OA) is one such example. Open access can be defined as ‘the removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research. Open access means peer-reviewed academic research work that is free to read online and that anybody may redistribute and reuse, with some restrictions.’2The idea is that research created using public money and academic labour should not be sold back to the public or the academic community at exorbitant prices. Research is hampered, knowledge is stultified and money wasted on an economic model whose primary beneficiary is seen to be publishers. Moreover all the tertiary benefits stemming from possible research nixed by the cost barrier are lost — the projects never even started by those unable to access material outside the academy. Those price barriers keep rising: the amount academic libraries pay for journal subscriptions has increased 300% above inflation in the 30 years since 1986.

7Open access advocates don’t dispute that publishing is work, that it requires resources and those resources are not free. It simply suggests changing the funding model. This is reflected in the idea that researchers pay article processing costs (APCs) or book processing costs (BPCs) to cover the work done. These, in theory, reflect the overheads involved in administering and producing published matter — not only the cost of managing peer review, but the costs of typesetting complex formulas, the editing, printing and even marketing. APCs are usually in the region of £1500–2000 but can be much higher. The point is this inverts the business model of the publisher: it’s hard to see how, in the long term, academic publishing conglomerates like RELX can sustain their more than comfortable 30% profit margins.

8OA, like self-publishing, doesn’t threaten publishing; it just threatens a certain instantiation of publisher. This of course doesn’t make it less significant, as whatever happens complex civilisations require publishing of some kind to operate. But it asks difficult questions of what the aims of publishing are and how the activities of a publisher should be funded. It suggests a different way is possible and that publishers may be worth it: worth the time, the profits, worth the dedication to a career, worth existing at all. Just as we are seeing a new generation of self-published authors dominate the ebook charts, so we are seeing exotic new forms of publishing organisation: the Public Library of Science, the Open Library of the Humanities, arXiv, Knowledge Unlatched…

9All of this takes place within the wider context of a Free Culture movement first espoused by bands of Californian dreamers like Richard Stallman. He proposed the GNU, a new kind of licence defying old prescripts of copyright, allowing reuse as part of its proposition. From here, from copyleft, Creative Commons and even, in some incarnations, blockchain, and through advocates from Larry Lessig to Cory Doctorow to millions of everyday pirates, new forms of IP have been proposed and adopted with varying degrees of success. Publishers are not too worried as there is no chance copyright will suddenly disappear. But the atmosphere is now one in which it is possible to imagine publishing without the key plank of publishers’ monetisation. That should prompt some reflection, again, about why publishers should get paid as much they do.

10If writers felt they benefitted from the system there would be less for publishers to worry about. Unfortunately it’s doubtful writers feel that way. Again the wider context is shaped by the technological-cultural vortex of the Internet. In 2006 the writer Nicholas Carr and the legal and Internet theorist Yochai Benkler had a wager. Benkler argued that by 2011 most content on the Internet would be peer-produced and lie outside market mechanisms of payment. It would, in other words, be produced for free. Carr felt that in 2011 most writing on the Internet would be paid for by publishers. Given the rise of social media in the intervening years it seems incontestable that most ‘content’ broadly defined was submitted freely; people, by and large, were not getting paid. Even if some still were, and even if the great web platforms can hardly be said to exist beyond ‘market mechanisms’ (indeed, they embody them), most content produced in most places around the world is produced for free. Some years on from the start of the debate, this can only be more true: as of 2017 Facebook has over two billion users, against well under one billion in 2011. Free and unpaid content dominates the Internet to a greater degree than ever: much of it produced for publication by traditionally professional publishers.

  • 3 Unless otherwise stated all information is from Canelo/Arts Council England, ‘Literature in the 21 (...)

11Economics suggests the price of content will fall across the board; premiums for producing material must fall in the context of many other people producing free content. Such big picture tectonic shifts can feel imperceptible. Yet recent research I conducted at Canelo suggests this feeds through into collapsing author incomes, falling book prices and an ever widening spread between a small number of ‘winners’ and a great morass of ‘losers’ in the world of letters.3

  • 4 Sarah Shaffi, ‘“Huge Inequality” in Writer Earnings’, The Bookseller, 20 April 2015, (...)

12Professional authors are struggling — even more than professional publishers. While profits are up at major groups like Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster most authors cannot live off their writing alone. In 2005 an ACLS commissioned survey found that 40% of authors earned their money from writing. By 2013 this had dropped to just 11.5%. In 2013, 17% of writers earned no money at all from their writing. Between 2007 and 2013 author earnings fell by 28% in real terms.4

13Much of this is predicated on a fall in book sales and book prices (it is worth saying that I am talking here about trade publishing). Data from Nielsen Bookscan shows book sales are still down from their highs of 2007 for hardbacks and 2008 for paperbacks. Although the Total Consumer Market (TCM) has shown signs of buoyancy since 2015, the years 2008–2014 saw year-on-year declines for both hardbacks and paperbacks only slightly mitigated by the rise of digital formats. For example, £10m was wiped off the market for hardbacks in the years 2007 to 2011. The picture is even worse in the US: bookstore sales went from $17bn in 2007 to just $10.9bn in 2014.

14Compounding the issue of sales is the falling price of books, a less frequently discussed but no less powerful phenomenon for the longterm viability of both paid-for publishing and full-time writers. Again Nielsen Bookscan data shows us that the average selling price for hardback fiction is down 33.7% in real terms since 2001. The average selling price of a paperback is down 33.5% in real terms over the same period. Sales would have had to increase by a third since 2001 to maintain income levels, but of course they have not. Falling sales and the falling price of books both have to be seen in the wider context of the digital revolution, where plentiful text and entertainment is available for free or at very low cost.

15Some writers are doing well out of the current system. In 2015 the top 1% of authors accounted for 32.8% of all sales. Beyond this, the top 0.1% accounted for 13% of sales. That year the amount earned by top 0.1% increased 21% against 2014. Mega-brands are doing fine. Go down into what used to be termed the midlist, a once respectable place now rightly feared by writers, and the picture worsens considerably. The 10,000th best-selling book per year in the UK sells between 94 and 99 units. The 1000th bestselling book sells between 3000 and 4000 units a year. Not too bad; but when you factor in all the costs of production and publishing, hardly enough to sustain a career. Few writers can survive on their work alone.

16The reality of self-publishing; the radical new forms of IP; the disruption engendered by the web; the continued crisis in sales. Putting all these together, authors of many shades have reason to feel disenchanted with publishing. In the old world there wasn’t a lot to be done. Authors had to lump it. But, as suggested earlier, we live amidst a revolution, opening new possibilities that could, if deployed imaginatively, create a whole new publishing ecosystem — and in some cases has already done so. The threat ultimately is a multifaceted, but it amounts to the possibility of disintermediation in the value chain for the first time coupled with a sense, rightly or wrongly, that publishers are not doing their job.

  • 5 Michael Bhaskar, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to th (...)

17In The Content Machine I outlined a theory of publishing, suggesting its value lies in filtering and amplification.5 That is, that the primary value-adding function of publishing is firstly to select from the great range of possible texts according to a set of professional criteria, and secondly, take these to a wider audience than would have been the case without the publisher’s intervention. Amplification is, in other words, disseminating a text beyond what would otherwise be possible, whether this is through printing or marketing or file creation or any combination of activities. The question becomes, given all this, given the position of authors, are publishers the best people to filter and amplify? Or have they instead become redundant organisations co-opting value? As sketched out above, this is a live question.

Case Study: Meet Jacob Tonson, ‘Prince of Publishers’; a Model for Publishing

18In order to explore why publishers are worth paying for, I want to look at someone who really did get paid: the seventeenth-and eighteenth-century publisher Jacob Tonson. As much as any publisher in history perhaps, Tonson became fabulously wealthy. A pioneer of intellectual property, he can be seen as the classic rentier, the model of publisher as parasite; the kind of publisher that can safely be consigned to history. Was he just a clever manipulator of IP? From another perspective, this would be too simple. Tonson wasn’t just riding on the back of his authors but making them. He is an extreme example in either direction, but because of this he illustrates the cases against and for publishers in spectacular fashion — and despite the different historical context, his career hints at their continued but changing role.

19Tonson was one of the greatest men of letters of his day. He knew, and worked with, everyone. Rotund, epicurean, bibulous, garrulous, he was an instantly recognisable, be-turbaned figure on the London literary scene — the ‘prince of publishers’. He is more than anyone the ‘father of modern publishing’, not a printer, not a ‘stationer’, not a bookseller but something else, something new: a professional publisher.

  • 6 The lapsing of the Licencing Acts removed the monopoly-granting powers of the Company of Stationer (...)

20The Great Fire of 1666 wrought havoc on the London book trade, destroying thousands of books and the premises of their creation. Demand for books, as for so many other things, spiked. It was in this context that Jacob Tonson started his apprenticeship in the trade. Becoming a freeman of the Company of Stationers in 1677, he was then in a position to strike out on his own and capitalise. By the 1690s Tonson was well on the way to being a grand figure, rich enough from his publishing to employ servants, and inheriting his brother’s business. He managed to ride the wave that resulted from the lapsing of the Licencing Acts in 1695, a major blow to publishers.6

  • 7 Harry M. Geduld, Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson (Bloomington (...)

21All of this was built on an empire of copyright. As his biographer notes, ‘Many commentators have noticed that it was Tonson and not Milton who made a fortune from Paradise Lost’.7 Piracy was, especially after the end of the Licencing Act, a constant problem. While the Act was a restrictive measure that gave considerable control to the government, it also protected those publishers granted licences to print a work. Printing was restricted to just a few cities. Arch-Royalist Sir Roger L’Estrange, Surveyor of the Imprimery (printing presses) had a team looking for unlicensed printers and the number of printers in London was reduced to twenty, down from sixty. Yet L’Estrange was much more concerned with sedition than piracy, although all he really cared about was that the publishing industry lay under his orbit and the multitude of booksellers clustered on streets like Little Britain or Paternoster Row groaned under the weight of the pirated works they sold (at least until the Great Fire).

22Tonson jealously guarded his copyrights, and used his influence within the Stationers and in London society at large to force the Copyright Act of 1709 through the House of Lords on its third reading. This was vindication for publishers, and, as the most prolific publisher of his day, for Tonson in particular. It spurred him on to launch his huge Shakespeare project. He bought The Spectator, the great organ of Addison and Steele that typified journalism. In the 1710s Tonson presided over a cultural and political institution at his workplace, the Shakespeare’s Head, sited just off the Strand.

23With the accession of George I in 1714 and his favouring of the Whigs, Tonson won a large number of government contracts, further solidifying his wealth. Tonson even managed to make the astronomical sum of £40,000 gambling on the French Mississippi scheme which, like the South Sea Bubble, was later to crash in spectacular style. On his deathbed he had a fortune of at least £80,000, a vast sum today. With the timing of the serially lucky, Tonson had bowed out at his zenith. He was rich, a friend and confidant of aristocrats and the most powerful men of his day.

24Here is a picture of a publisher who grew obscenely wealthy and influential on the back of luck and copyright. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Tonson’s contribution to literature and English culture more widely is enormous. He worked with the great writers of his day: Dryden, Swift, Pope, Congreve and Addison for example. He published more books than his peers, both vast folios in small upscale print runs, and much cheaper larger print run books for populist consumption. He founded the literary reputations of giants like Shakespeare and Milton.

25He had a knack for building writers and making them work critically and commercially. He had an insatiable appetite for reading, an eye for what would be critically and commercially successful and he worked in detail with writers to perfect their texts. Tonson’s textual scholarship was first rate. He also had a sharp business mind — unsold copies of Dryden, whose reputation is due to Tonson more than anyone else, would be rebound as Miscellanies allowing for a second bite of the cherry and the clearing of valuable unsold stock. On acquiring Dryden’s rights, which he did assiduously, Tonson improved the quality of the printing. He released Dryden’s prologues and epilogues in new, distinct editions. This was all part of a campaign from Tonson that kept Dryden in print and kept new editions and works coming every year; the public would not be allowed to forget him. This wasn’t just copyright ownership; this was brand building.

26There were famously differences between Dryden and Tonson, but this was a new kind of relationship. Tonson’s influence was enormous — he steered Dryden’s writing towards public taste, which he made it his business to understand. As Dryden himself acknowledged, his translation of Virgil was thanks to encouragement from Tonson. Tonson once again employed his nous to publish it — this would be a subscription book, allowing him to cover costs in advance, guarantee an audience, build buzz and pay for a sumptuous printing. Tonson worked closely with his writers to find the audience for these subscriptions. For this Dryden was paid £50 for every two books of both The Aeneid and The Georgics, and received 60% of the subscriptions from the first edition. There were 101 names on the five-guinea subscription list and 252 on the two-guinea subscription list (which includes one Sam. Pepys Esq.). The total profit for Dryden is placed at around £700–800, a very handsome return for the time. This was fair, leaving only a tiny margin. Nonetheless a furious row broke out about the quality of the coinage, a major economic issue. The book is an extraordinary edition, beautifully printed, cleverly and well typeset and designed in a way few other English books of the period are. It displays care, attention to detail and craft throughout, with intricate engravings. Even after Dryden’s death Tonson fiercely guarded his author, fending off assaults from rival writers like Addison who were keen to promote themselves.

  • 8 Ibid., p. 171.

27Most authors were in a perilous situation. Once they had sold their ‘copy’, it was out of their control. Printers would maximise their profits regardless of an author’s wellbeing or reputation. This partly explains why writers so favoured the theatre. Until Tonson, the relationship between writers and publishers was fractious; most publishers weren’t willing to invest in, develop and take risks on writers. Nor was it just modern writers who benefitted. Without Tonson’s critical interventions Milton and Shakespeare may never have been recognised as the pillars of English letters they became. Tonson was tireless in boosting their literary reputation and invested large sums in the publication and republication of their work. In addition to publishing many of the major names of the time, Tonson was secretary of the influential Kit-Cat Club, comprised of the intellectuals, magnates, artists and Whiggish aristocracy of the time, a roll-call of the great, good and celebrated of early eighteenth century Britain. He was a regular figure at book markets in the UK and Europe, introducing new and better quality Dutch type to his printing. In the words of his biographer: ‘Tonson’ s association with the Kit-Cat Club sets him apart from the generations of bookseller-stationers who preceded him; for he was the earliest publisher to understand and exploit the delicate art of public relations, and this, no less than his achievements as a populariser of Dryden, Milton, and Shakespeare, distinguishes him as the earliest professional publisher.’8So it’s clear that Tonson made a lot of money. But it’s also clear that he was fair to writers in the process. More than that we consistently see him filter and amplify: expertly choosing works for focus, finding the writers that mattered, and then working hard taking them to wide audiences, certainly much wider than would have been the case without his intervention. He did this consistently and with demonstrable success. Inasmuch as Tonson was an IP owner he extracted value, but really IP is here the mechanism by which filtering and amplifying can take place. Tonson almost went out of business thanks to widespread piracy. Had he done so the canon would be a poorer place.

28This in turn tells us two things. Firstly that, in theory, the model for the for-profit professional publisher can work well. The most extreme forms of value co-option can be coincident with the most extreme forms of value creation. The model of publishing most of us used to accept as normal has this ideal at its heart. Secondly that just as the problems for publishers lies in today’s technical, economic and artistic context, so the solution must lie in that context, as it did for Tonson

Too Much to Read

29Jacob Tonson was worth paying for. That’s cold comfort to publishers today, facing falling sales, a grim retail environment and a tougher publicity climate, all in ferocious competition with one another, all against the backdrop of the wider existential challenge of disintermediation and transformed business models. However if we focus on one further feature of this environment we can appreciate how a renewed focus on filtering and amplification can create a new model — one in which publishers can justify their intervention in an age of disruption.

30What Tonson did was new. He was part of a series of publishers in the seventeenth and eighteenth century who delimited publishing from printing or bookselling and created a new role that was neither. Printers and booksellers had also been involved with filtering and amplifying, but publishers from Henry Herringman to John Murray adapted to changes in society, the shift in institutions around printing, innovations like IP, the swelling economic climate and so on, to produce a new forms of filtering and amplification. The model of publisher currently under peril has had a good run: what we need is an evolution, something that responds to our own time — something that, like Tonson in his day, is worth paying for.

31It would be wrong to suggest this isn’t happening. Earlier I listed new OA initiatives like the Public Library of Science, arXiv and Open Library of the Humanities. These are new forms of publisher, reacting to problems with the prevalent models. What’s different about these organisations is not just their commitment to OA but their complete redesign of the institution of a publisher, structurally speaking, to achieve it. They may not, for example, be for-profit businesses, or have traditional premises and full time staff, or ever deal with printing. They may bypass structural roles like overseeing traditional peer review. Or they may resemble a technology start-up or platform more than a publishing house. To face disintermediation and its attendant threats, professional publishers must re-gear their core operations, the heart of their value propositions, their filtering and amplification, around the new context. At the same time many academic publishers like Springer Nature, in addition to continuing their existing activities, are experimenting with OA, even if this could be seen as a way of buttressing their existing models.

32The salient thing to note is the extraordinary superabundance of content springing from the same techno-cultural matrix as disintermediation and the collapse of paid writing.

33We have grown numb to the barrage of statistics illustrating this, so I will confine myself to a few observations. One million books were published in the English language last year. These are books with ISBNs. This is a vast quantity of books and a statistic that is not referenced by publishers nearly enough. Alone it changes the equation of what it means to be a publisher — few other sectors have such a diversity and weight of new product entering the market every year. Alone it transforms the economics of the publishing business; yet business models have not caught up. It also doesn’t factor in the rapid growth of self-publishing in recent years. And of course, it doesn’t factor in anything non-book.

  • 9 Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (Londo (...)

34For years information production increased. The ever-industrialising media machine was capable of manufacturing more content every year. Yet digital technology supercharged this trend, from the explosion in size of traditional news operations like the New York Times or The Guardian to blogs and social media. Data, in general, has been increasing at a rate of something like 60% per annum in the 2010s. This is not only remarkable in itself but comes with significant externalities: according to the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin the average American is exposed to 175 newspapers-worth of information every day.9 For most of our history information was incredibly scarce; now the opposite is true.

35When written content exists in such excess, the gatekeeping role of the publisher, far from becoming less important, is massively enhanced. We need all the filters we can get to manage the surplus of text that is in large part enabled by the productive capacities of the digital network. In such saturated environments, value shifts to secondary selection from primary production. This is difficult for publishers inasmuch as they are producers of books, but good if we see publishers as arbiters and selectors. The truth is they are always both, but thinking in terms of an overloaded market — a market where the marginal value of adding another book is decidedly limited — allows publishers, and everyone in the book world, to have a clear sense of where their value lies. The choices an imprint makes define everything else in the publishing process. Perhaps the most important thing any publisher does is say no. When there are so many books, if a publisher’s choices aren’t meaningful, they are nothing.

36Lastly, content abundance puts greater emphasis on the wider network of curation. It explains why Amazon invented the category of personalisation: the first algorithms for recommending products online were created by an Amazon engineer called Greg Linden. What a publisher does, in the context of excess, is absolutely critical as it is an un-ignorable marker around a work that says: ‘this matters’. Expert curation of books isn’t as easy as it looks. Peer review, in-depth knowledge, extraordinary taste are all things that take time, and while algorithms can help here they cannot replace this process. There is no shortcut to becoming a trusted intermediary.

37This surplus also impacts the amplification side. We should acknowledge the limits of disintermediation in the present. Over the long term, disintermediation could be total. Today it’s not. Fifty Shades of Grey was a major self-published bestseller, with six-figure ebook sales. Yet without the power and reach of Random House, one of the world’s largest trade publishers, it is unlikely in the extreme it would have gone on to sell over 100 million copies around the world. Only the amplificatory powers of a major institution could have achieved that in today’s landscape.

  • 10 Bhaskar, The Content Machine.

38As I have described elsewhere, amplification mutates in a time of excess — it changes from distribution to audience building.10 It pushes us back to the old chestnut of market-making — sales, marketing and publicity. It’s hardly a secret that books don’t sell themselves, but when the competition is so extreme that fact is underlined. What other industry faces so many comparable product launches in any given year? Without serious amplification, no book stands a chance.

Two Challenges

39In a world in which everyone is a content producer, the value of content falls. Paradoxically however, the value of the best content, or perhaps the right context, rises. This is why, even as the number of journal articles has mushroomed, growing at between 9% and 13% every year for the past half century, the value — pecuniary and otherwise — of the top journals like Nature and Science has only increased. It’s why publishers are worth paying for, now as much as in the age of Tonson. Publishers will not do this alone. Instead we will need, and are building, vast and intricate ecosystems of curation that govern and stabilise the metastasizing universe of words. Benkler may have won his wager. That however only harms one conception of a publisher; it necessitates the need for another.

40The challenge is twofold. How on the one hand to rebuild publishing so that it takes into account all of those peril factors? How to make publishing, in other words, feel like it’s worth paying for to all the stakeholders — authors and readers being by far the most important? This involves, as suggested above, a rebuilding of the conception of the institution of the publisher in a way analogous to that of Tonson (and a great deal of other pioneering publishers throughout history). This is happening, but in piecemeal fashion. Academic and journal publishing as we have seen has made strides towards the change. News media is undergoing a bout of Schumpeterian creative destruction, with new organisations from Buzzfeed to Vice to Vox Media redefining the nature of a news publisher. Trade publishing has in this most fundamental respect been more conservative but we are seeing a new generation of digital publishers and an explosion, in the UK at least, of new indies including names like Tilted Axis, CB Editions, Fitzcarraldo Editions, Salt Books, Galley Beggar Press, Influx Press, Penned in the Margins, Tramp Press, Bluemoose Books, Jacaranda Books, Myriad Press, Gallic Books, And Other Stories, Bitter Lemon Press, Peirene Press and UK arms of American independents like Europa Editions and Melville House.


42It’s probably not quite enough. No ‘new’ publisher, in trade publishing at least, has made a Tonsonian contribution to date, although perhaps, in the moment, it will be hard to identify. We need publishers as above all else as curators and amplifiers — and seen to be such, with a business model that is felt to be fair by all parties. That is a primary challenge and make no mistake, it is a real and live challenge.

43Behind that lurks something even larger. Every publisher, of any kind, faces a collective problem: that same superabundance applies to all forms of media — entertainment, data and information — and publishing thus faces competition from anything from Candy Crush to House of Cards. We have less free time than ever before. And beyond that, the nature of digital media, with its thousands of bleeps, each capable of delivering a small dopamine hit, is restructuring our brains. Our attention spans are quite literally being whittled away. The dominant form is rapidly becoming the image, both static and moving. People would rather share video on Snapchat or browse Instagram feeds than experience the evanescent sugar rush of a tweet. It’s still reading. Even as we publish more books than ever, and there are suggestions those books are getting longer, our capacity to absorb them is reduced.

44It will be the responsibility of publishers to find a way through this. If they can do both these challenges, well, I for one think that would be worth paying for — but maybe I would. After all, I’m a publisher.


1 ‘The World’ s 57 Largest Book Publishers, 2015’, Publishers Weekly, 26 June 2015,

2 Martin Eve, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

3 Unless otherwise stated all information is from Canelo/Arts Council England, ‘Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction’, Arts Council Report, 15 December 2017,

4 Sarah Shaffi, ‘“Huge Inequality” in Writer Earnings’, The Bookseller, 20 April 2015,

5 Michael Bhaskar, The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network (London: Anthem Press, 2013).

6 The lapsing of the Licencing Acts removed the monopoly-granting powers of the Company of Stationers, temporarily challenging publishers’ exclusivity over given works.

7 Harry M. Geduld, Prince of Publishers: A Study of the Work and Career of Jacob Tonson (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 11.

8 Ibid., p. 171.

9 Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (London: Penguin Viking, 2014).

10 Bhaskar, The Content Machine.


A writer and publisher based in London and Oxford. He is co-founder of Canelo, a new digital publisher, and Writer in Residence at DeepMind, the world’s leading AI research lab. Previously he has been a digital publisher, economist, agent and start-up founder amongst other things. He is author of The Content Machine (2013) and Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess (2016) and is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Publishing (2019). He regularly speaks and writes about the future of publishing, media, culture and society.

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