Oliver Gadsby for thought piecesOliver Gadsby writes: As a book publisher, I am often asked by those outside the industry whether the advent of e-books is making life difficult for us: there is an assumption that new technology must be a problem. In reality, the reverse is true, and book publishing is flourishing, using all the technologies at its disposal to connect authors with readers.

When I entered the publishing industry (in Germany, in the 1980s), typewriters and carbon paper still dominated office life, and the landscape of publishing and book-selling was equally settled. Authors wrote, editors edited, and a book followed a predictable flow through the hands of typesetters, printers, binders, distributors, wholesalers and retailers to reach a reader.

Since then, we have had a succession of disruptive changes, driven by the possibilities of the Internet; each faster and more dramatic than the last, and each requiring adaptation on the part of publishers. 

Digital workflow has become ever more sophisticated, and our treatment of an author’s text is no longer focused on the creation of one printed product. Good copy-editing and strong page design are still important – but we are now using XML tagging to define elements of a text and its images, and our processes result in a number of file types being stored in a database, ready for output as an e-book, a printed work, or as part of another combined text.

Global mega-corporations have sprung up, which have radically changed our access to readers. Amazon, Google, Apple and others have innovated, and delivered stunning new services to customers worldwide. Publishers have agonised over their growing domination, whilst at the same time benefiting from the discoverability and sales which these giants create. Constant innovation in business models has been demanded; some of it – like the disputed Agency Model in which Apple and some large publishers found themselves entangled – perhaps a dead-end, but much of it invigorating and beneficial for customers.

E-books and print technology have transformed the availability and distribution of books. The old model was to guess at a market demand for a book, to print accordingly – and watch a warehouse steadily fill up with unsold books. Excess stock was pulped, books were put out of print, and the economy creaked on. Today, nothing need be unavailable: print on demand means single copies of many types of book can be printed economically, and e-books can be sent to readers instantly. And the e-book itself is evolving, with interactivity, video and multiple pathways through content now common features. The result is a flourishing of books and reading.

Communication with customers is possible and necessary, as never before. Rather than sit blindly, wondering who the readers are who are buying from bookshops or online, publishers of all sizes are using technology to build a relationship with their readers. Specialist publishers are developing online communities of readers who react to new publications, suggest new areas for publishing, criticise editorial decisions: it’s a lively, passionate debate. Large publishers weave together creative campaigns involving Twitter, Facebook, live events, competitions, book signings, all drawing the author and the reader together.

The world is shrinking, with the old barriers of geography, which defined the areas in which publishing rights could be granted, making less and less sense. Increasingly, we are addressing a global audience, and as publishers we need to demonstrate to our authors that we can reach their readers worldwide. Copyright is under constant question in an age of instant access to content everywhere, and publishers need to keep proving their worth.

For me, it’s a fascinating time, and it’s encouraged me to launch a new London-based academic publishing business, Rowman & Littlefield International. Backed by a US partner, we’re optimistic that we can use the changes in the publishing landscape to create a dynamic business, in the niche (yet global) market of the academic Humanities.

Oliver Gadsby, a Liveryman of the Stationers’ Company, is Chief Executive of Rowman & Littlefield International. He was previously CEO of Continuum, a private equity-backed company whose turnaround he steered over a four-year period, until he led the sale of the company to Bloomsbury plc. Oliver was previously Director of Strategy and Acquisitions at Informa plc. He is non-executive Chairman of WTiN, the World Textile Information Network, and a non-executive director of Osprey Publishing. 



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