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What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness

Penguincubator

By James Bridle

LONDON: When Allen Lane produced the popular paperback in 1934, his breakthrough was not in the creation of the paperback — they had had been around in various, if poor quality, formats for a number of years. His innovation was recognizing a novel context in which people were reading, or wanting to read. The legend goes that the realization came at a railway station. I like to imagine Lane in his expensive, well-cut suit — he was a famously well-dressed man — idly perusing the newspaper stand at Adlestrop (actually Exeter), and noticing the bored gazes of his fellow passengers as they waited for their endlessly delayed train. A lightbulb goes on.

Lane’s other invention, alongside the cheap, quality paperback, was the Penguincubator, first installed outside Henderson’s (the “Bomb Shop”) at 66 Charing Cross Road, which signaled his intention to take the book beyond the library and the traditional bookstore, into railway stations, chain stores and onto the streets. It is worth noting, given publishers’ frequent timidity in this area, that this really annoyed booksellers. (Lane’s lack of trepidation is an important part of this story; worth noting, too, that he was the first English publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, at the Bodley Head, despite the widespread contemporary fear of prosecution for obscenity.)

In the Penguincubator we see several desires converge: affordable books, non-traditional distribution, awareness of context, and a quiet radicalism. And it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to see how these apply now. I see the same bored gaze on the bus and tube today, as people reflexively flip open their phones and start poking at email or casual games, as Allen Lane saw on the platform at Exeter in 1933. And slowly — oh, so slowly — publishers are seeing that what we are presented with is not the death of everything we trust, value and hold dear, but a similar widening vista of opportunity to that which arrived with the mass-market paperback.

Amazon’s Kindle Store, Apple’s iBooks platform, and Google Books are the Penguincubators of the new era — and the only distress is that publishers have allowed the distributors to seize the higher ground.

The frictionless content delivery system pioneered by iTunes and now extended to our industry could have been developed by those who make the books themselves — and perhaps it still will be, as the music industry claws back a little leverage with Spotify, and the television industry with Hulu and similar endeavors.

Meanwhile, publishers continue to focus on formats — flat e-books versus enhanced applications, windowed release schedules to protect the paper book — and the legal infighting of pricing models, electronic rights and digitization.

james-bridle

James Bridle

These issues are important, but they ignore the long history of publishing innovation outside acquisition, publication and exploitation.

The axis on which this issue turns, and the lens through which it should be observed, is time.

The book — by which I mean long-form text, in any format — is not a physical thing, but a temporal one.

Its primary definition, its signal quality, is the time we take to read it, and the time before it and the time after it that are also intrinsic parts of the experience: the reading of reviews and the discussions with our friends, the paths that lead us to it and away from it (to other books) and around it.

Publishers know very little about the habits and practices of their readers, and they impinge on this time very little, leaving much of the work to the retailers and distributors.

Amazon and Apple understand experience design, and they know more about our customers than we do; readers’ experience with our product is mediated and controlled by forces beyond ours.

In addition, the time taken by writers and editors becomes invisible.

As a result, customers’ perception of the value of what we do has fallen to near-zero, while few complain about shelling out hundreds and thousands of dollar/pounds for the devices and connectivity that give them access to it.

So what should we be doing about this?

We need to make visible the full life of the book: the months of writing and editing; the book as advertisement for, and latterly souvenir of, itself; the book as site of engagement and start of a conversation.

We should learn not only from other content industries, but from the digital support structures that have grown up around them.

To take one, the musical ecosystem comprising services such as Last.fm, Hype Machine, Songkick, Soundcloud and Bandcamp has few parallels in literature, as yet.

These services surround the artistic work with a visible halo of engagement, recommendation, data generation and visualization.

They allow direct communication between artist and audience, benefiting both immeasurably. And these type of services, which serve artists, publishers and consumers in equal measure, are founded on the skills that publishers have in abundance: the recognition and understanding of literary quality, and a deep and enduring love and knowledge of the medium itself.

Those that are most perceived as the greatest threat to publishing — the tech companies — are not a threat here: Amazon is an infrastructure company, Apple a technology and design company, Google is a search engine. None of them will be able to replicate publishers’ passion for books.

But to take advantage of this, publishers need to look beyond Industrial Revolution-era definitions of what they do, beyond one-size-fits-all definitions of our product, and beyond publicity-grabbing, short-term management and imprint rearrangements that have nothing to do with readers’ demands.

In short, we need to walk down that platform with Allen Lane again, take a long look at where and how people are reading, and help them to find a good book.

James Bridle is a publisher, writer and a number of other things. He is based in London, UK, and can be found at http://booktwo.org and http://shorttermmemoryloss.com.

SEE: Bridle’s experiments with book “souvenirs”

DISCUSS: If e-books have no physical form, what defines them as books?

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6 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    I fear the lesson most current publishing execs take away from Lane and the paperback is that it was about access; and therefore putting ebooks in more places is an adequate parallel. I love that you make the point about his innovation and radicalism. A Bandcamp for books FTW!

  2. Posted April 28, 2010 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    Fabulous! It was the Espresso Book Machine of its era. Whatever happened to the Penguinator? I wonder what would have happened had publishers continued in that direction.

  3. Erin
    Posted April 28, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    I loved this story…it’s exactly how I feel too. Kudos!

  4. Posted April 28, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    As an independent publisher and self-published author I am in direct competition with those insitutions who have created a birds-nest tangle of barriers to those who do not follow their models in lock-step every step of the way. Sorry, but my books are meant for readers, not as grist for the distribution mills. When booksellers do not recoognize the legitimacy of books without ISBN numbers they are doing their customers a disservice by depriving them of choice. While Amazon is all-powerful in its reach, one can liken it to the universe, which is rapidly expanding. The books in its sales library also include books and ebooks without the numbers. Other booksellers are not willing to take the important step Amazon did, so of course they cannot compete with it. But by the same token, most of the books do not get sold on Amazon. So I will continue to do business my way, the way Allen Lane did, with pride in the quality of my books and the fearlessness to use economic sense to sell them.

  5. Posted April 28, 2010 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    You are wise to point out the music analogy, though smashwords might qualify as the soundcloud of the bunch. the need for a hypebot style aggregator is crucial.

    I would say that Amazon pioneered a lot of what you are talking about and then their book-related web product development efforts froze in 2002. My sense is that their culture around building internally and secrecy around data is hindering their ability to leap into the 2.0 era.

  6. Andrew Porter
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Lane worked with a young editor and his wife, named Ian and Betty Ballantine. They too left their marks on paperback publishing, and the name still lives as an imprint.

16 Trackbacks

  1. [...] today’s lead story James Bridle suggests, “The book — by which I mean long-form text, in any format [...]

  2. By Midweek Miscellany | The Casual Optimist on April 28, 2010 at 9:32 am

    [...] Lessons from Allen Lane — James Bridle on what publishers can learn from the founder of Penguin Books: Amazon is an infrastructure company, Apple a technology and design company, Google is a search engine. None of them will be able to replicate publishers’ passion for books. [...]

  3. By Infovore » Links for April 28th on April 28, 2010 at 10:02 am

    [...] What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness "The book — by which I mean long-form text, in any format — is not a physical thing, but a temporal one. Its primary definition, its signal quality, is the time we take to read it, and the time before it and the time after it that are also intrinsic parts of the experience: the reading of reviews and the discussions with our friends, the paths that lead us to it and away from it (to other books) and around it." James, as ever, is very, very sharp. This is good. (tags: books publishing time temporality jamesbridle stml ) [...]

  4. By Stop Press for April 28th | booktwo.org on April 28, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    [...] What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness Me, pontificating, at Publishing Perspectives, on Allen Lane and fearless publishing. [...]

  5. [...] What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness by James Bridle on Publishing Perspectives [...]

  6. By From space to time « Snarkmarket on April 30, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    [...] Bri­dle looks at Allen Lane’s 20th-century inno­va­tions with Pen­guin paper­backs and intu­its a new…: The book — by which I mean long-form text, in any for­mat — is not a phys­i­cal thing, but [...]

  7. [...] The Penguincubator, say what?  Read about it…..and learn a bit of history about paperback books at the same time. [...]

  8. [...] made the rounds recently, I believe originating with this piece on Publishing Perspectives, about Allen Lane, best known for devising the first breakout success cheap-but-quality paperback, [...]

  9. By Een Penguincubator voor 2010 | Publishr on May 17, 2010 at 10:17 am

    [...] essay vormt een zeer zinvolle bijdrage aan de discussie over innovatie in de (boeken)uitgeverij. In What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness vergelijkt Bridle de opkomst van digital lezen met de opkomst van de paperback. Die stond aan de [...]

  10. [...] CLOSING Last month I featured The Book Bike as a way of distributing books and the Penguincubator as a historical note; same pattern here in closing for [...]

  11. [...] at Publishing Perspectives, via the always fascinating [...]

  12. By Dangerous Thinking In Publishing | Text Sushi on August 10, 2010 at 1:31 am

    [...] Dangerous Thinking In Publishing Posted on August 10, 2010 by Alf Rehn via publishingperspectives.com [...]

  13. [...] CLOSING Last month I featured The Book Bike as a way of distributing books and the Penguincubator as a historical note; same pattern here in closing for [...]

  14. [...] The Penguincubator, say what?  Read about it…..and learn a bit of history about paperback books at the same time. [...]

  15. [...] What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness .What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness. April 28, 2010 Read more by Guest Contributor 20 [...]

  16. By Een Penguincubator voor 2010 | Hugo Louter on February 13, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    [...] essay vormt een zeer zinvolle bijdrage aan de discussie over innovatie in de (boeken)uitgeverij. In What Publishers Today Can Learn from Allen Lane: Fearlessness vergelijkt Bridle de opkomst van digital lezen met de opkomst van de paperback. Die stond aan de [...]

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