Gail Rebuck: ‘The Power of the Book’ in the Digital Age

In Opinion & Commentary by Guest Contributor

We need ‘the confidence to explore the alchemy’ of young talent and technologists’ input, the Baroness Gail Rebuck tells London Book Fair’s Quantum Conference — not a ‘civil war’ in publishing.
Baroness Gail Rebuck speaks Monday at London Book Fair's Quantum Conference. Image: Porter Anderson

Baroness Gail Rebuck speaks Monday at London Book Fair’s Quantum Conference. Image: Porter Anderson

“Looking back” on the mergers that led to the establishment of Penguin Random House, the Baroness Gail Rebuck — PRH Chair and non-executive Director of The Guardian Media Group — has told the Quantum Conference in her keynote on the eve of London Book Fair that “it makes the relationships between the ruling families of Game of Thrones seem easy to follow.” Here is the text of her keynote address from that conference, in full. Like those ruling families in George R.R. Martin’s saga, she says, “we’re still not sure if and when winter is coming.” And in publishing, she says, “the old is simply learning how to co-exist with the new.” — Porter Anderson

By Gail Rebuck | @GailRebuck |Baroness Rebuck of Bloomsbury, DBE
Speaking at London Book Fair’s Quantum Conference, Monday, April 11

The Curious Incident of the Book in the Digital Age
when [London Book Fair Director] Jacks Thomas asked me to speak at the London Book Fair, she casually suggested I might address Publishing and the Author: Past, Present and Future and do it in 15 minutes!

I’ve tried to bring some focus to that vast landscape under the title of The Curious Incident of the Book in the Digital Age – “curious” because while the incredible revolutions we’ve lived through in the last 20 years may seem to have changed everything, when you really get down to it, nothing has changed at the core of our industry — it’s still stories and the people who create those stories — the authors — that underpin everything.  It’s their imagination that inspires and moves readers and makes publishing much more than just another industry to work in — publishing is not to have a job but a vocation.

Books are the DNA of our civilisation, an unbroken line of stories, ideas and knowledge which essentially completes our relationship with all of humanity and with ourselves.

And yet the world is changing — and it is changing fast.  In 2007 a colleague phoned from New York to say a new book had just been recommended to him.  He had immediately stopped at a coffee shop, downloaded the book and was well into the first chapter by the time he got back to his office.  For me it was a profound moment in which I understood the enormity of the cultural revolution ahead.  And that was not even 10 years ago.  The speed of change has been phenomenal.

I started my working life learning how to set hot type and to hand-bind a book, thanks to a generous employer, a children’s book packager, who let me do a day-release course at the London College of Printing.  Three years later — my third job — I was launching a paperback imprint for Paul Hamlyn at a time when hardback publishers still preferred to sell on paperback rights rather than tangle with the brash new world of aggressive marketing that came with them.  I so enjoyed that brash new world that after five years I re-mortgaged my flat and teamed up with Anthony Cheetham to launch “Century,” a name we chose by thumbing through a book of typefaces from my days at printing college.

Many of you will know the rest of the story. Century merged with Hutchinson and bought Ebury, was acquired by Random House, launched Vintage, acquired Reed books — which included Secker & Warburg — and then Harvill.  In 1998 Random House was in turn acquired by Bertelsmann and merged with Transworld.  Then came BBC Books and Virgin and, in 2013, the biggest move of all with the foundation of Penguin Random House.  Looking back on it, it makes the relationships between the ruling families of Game of Thrones seem easy to follow.  And, like them, we’re still not sure if and when winter is coming.

Three ‘Seismic Shifts’

There have been three real seismic shifts in our industry during the time that I’ve been working.

  • The first in the early ’80s was the rise of Waterstones as the first chain of full-range High Street bookshops.
  • The second was the end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995.  Although I had a hand in its demise, it was already doomed in the UK and yet I can mourn its passing and reflect on the enlightened versions of it in some European countries where local culture and multiple routes to market are valued.
  • The third, of course, was Amazon, with its brilliant forward-thinking about the online retailing of books, which led to the biggest revolution of them all — the kindle and the digital book.

You might suppose that the Amazon revolution would have killed the Waterstones revolution — but that’s not what’s happened — another “curious incident.”  As is becoming true for many other parts of the media world, the old is simply learning how to co-exist with the new.  What better evidence than the news that a new independent bookshop – a hub for creative entrepreneurs, opening in the heart of high-tech East London — is offering hand bookbinding as one of its attractions and, incidentally, doesn’t allow the use of mobile phones on the premises!

But let’s start with thinking about what’s changed rather than what hasn’t.

We rightly celebrate the UK’s creative industries — worth £84 billion a year — employing almost 2 million people and growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy.  £10 billion of that figure is publishing, half of it book publishing — a £5 billion industry dependent on the creativity of authors.

And that’s only part of it. Three of the top four global film franchises of all time — Lord of the Rings, James Bond and Harry Potter — rest on the work of British authors.  Films, plays, endless brilliant television series, think Le Carré, animation, even kids toys and theme parks ultimately depend on the creative ability of storytellers.  They ought to be seen as heroes of the British economy!

‘One in 10 Writers Can Afford To Live From Writing Alone’

But here’s the paradox — today only one in 10 writers can afford to live from writing alone.  Just 5 percent of authors earn 43 percent of all income from writing while half of all self-published authors earn less than $500 a year.   Recently it has become fashionable to point the finger at publishers for the concerning decline in authors’ revenues but that ignores the complexity of the modern world, the squeezed margins across the whole supply chain, the lack of diversity in ebook distribution, price deflation on the High Street and online — and stiff competition from other media for readers’ time.

The technology that has made it easier than ever to tell a story and get it out to the world cuts two ways; it’s made it possible for a handful of authors to hit a global jackpot of unprecedented — Himalayan — proportions, while at the same time making it so much tougher for many authors to be seen or heard in the vast sea of information in which we now live.

‘No One Path to Global Success’

Take James Patterson — the nearest thing we have to a Netflix model for books — a one-man publishing phenomenon whose creativity supports more than 30 projects at any one time and who has probably done more than any other living author to give independent bookstores hope for the future while campaigning for children to fall in love with reading.  And he has just announced a new “Bookshots” series to appeal to time-poor lapsed readers.

Or take Dan Brown, discovered by his editor Bill Scott-Kerr of Transworld who believed in him enough to support him through three relatively unsuccessful books until The Da Vinci Code.  Virtually no other publisher has benefitted from the whole backlist because they had abandoned the author after one or two books — and no doubt regretted it ever since.  Dan Brown’s career is proof, once again, that publishing can be a long game that depends on the shared vision and determination of writer and editor.

And, finally, look at E L James and Fifty Shades of Grey — picked up by a small ebook publisher from a fan fiction site, acquired in the US by Random House and then brought to the UK by Century Arrow which had just six nail-biting weeks to fire up UK readers for a book and an author none of them had heard of.  They certainly did a good job — I’ll never forget the day Susan Sandon came into my office to tell me that the UK had just run out of silver ink as the book surged on towards its incredible global sales total of over 100 million copies.

Three authors with very different journeys but a common destination — massive global success, driven by brilliant marketing and publicity and sales networks but success that also crucially depended on editors and publishers with real insight, confidence in their own judgement and, often, nerves of steel — much the same process as it has been to develop and grow authors all the time I have been in this industry.  After all, that is why publishers were put on earth — to sift, curate and nurture the talents and direction of authors but, most of all, to follow their instincts and connect readers with their unimagined future and what they didn’t even know they were looking for.

‘Dependent as Ever on the Editor and Publisher’

Today our job as publishers is made easier, and infinitely more sophisticated, by terabytes of digital research and sophisticated insight tools that enable us to segment audiences by their passions and their literary tastes, to reach readers with the individuality of an email message, to constantly refresh and repackage the way books and backlists are managed and marketed.  Who would have thought that Ladybird books had the potential for a sudden albeit slightly subversive re-invention in the 21st century!  It just takes one brilliantly executed idea.

The other contemporary phenomenon we as publishers should have the confidence and generosity to welcome is the outpouring of creative energy that has been unleashed by self-publishing, the ultimate democratisation of story-telling and by the power of social networks to bring together authors and readers with similar tastes and interests.

But that in no way detracts from the fact that the continuing success of long-form reading — and the future of the global bestseller — are as dependent as ever on the editor and publisher.  Their real purpose, and their skill, unchanged by the digital revolution, is still to recognise true originality and to understand how that can best be shaped and packaged to reach and move an audience.

Of course, global bestsellers have always existed and their success has been — and will continue to be — as much to do with word-of-mouth recommendation as anything else.  In that sense, as Tom Standage argues in his compelling book, Writing on the Wall, nothing has changed since the 17th century pamphlets were distributed, or when people gathered at the coffee houses of the 18th century, except that rather than a leisurely chat with a friend, our days are more likely to be lived in a growing torrent of conversation and information.

Worldwide, more phone calls are now made in a single day than were made in the whole of 1984 and more emails are sent in a day than in the whole of 1989.  A year in a day is often what it feels like as I reach for the “pause” button.

And the average American spends more time online in a day than they do either working or sleeping. Reading has to fight for its space, and needs all the help it can get.

I’ve long thought that Professor Charles Handy’s analogy of the elephant and the flea applies to the world of modern publishing; the big international company with its warehouses, global reach and sophisticated systems alongside the agile flea, independent in spirit as well as in finance.  They need each other and in many ways they feed each other.

We certainly need both if we are to thrive in the digital world.

And we don’t need a civil war in which each tries to outflank the other as to which is the most creative. Both contribute to our culture, either through a stable of diverse talented editors or iconic owner/publishers.  They curate the best writers and thinkers and with the help of an agent — that triumvirate — author, agent, publisher — remain at the core of our creative survival as an industry while we develop our relationship with the reader in ways that could not have been imagined before.

Nor must we allow the digital and physical worlds to regard each other as enemies. We don’t know whether the slowdown in the growth of digital books and the resurgence — or at least the stabilisation — of High Street bookshops marks a sea change in consumer behaviour or is just a temporary plateau before the next wave of digital growth. What matters is that the readers are discovering and  buying books, whatever the form of delivery.

‘We Don’t Know How Readership Itself May Change’

More fundamentally, we don’t know how readership itself may change.  The interactivity of the digital world may drive us towards a new kind of reader engagement, a blurring of the relationship between reader and writer, as Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book believes, though I have to say there is little evidence for that yet.  We are still at the early stages of the relevant neuroscience and who knows where that might lead us?  Research shows that animation on tablets to accompany children’s stories can help them understand the story better and increase their vocabulary.  For all that, the killer app for books has yet to be invented — unless the early model for children’s publishing proves to be exactly that!

Illustrated children’s publishers, focussed on younger readers, have pioneered collaborative working in which writer, artist and, often today, a TV production team, coder and web designer work together from the very beginning of a project — the author becoming subsumed into a larger and highly professional creative team along the Pixar lines.  But as you move up the age range — once you’ve reached for your first J K Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Philip Pullman or John Green – you’re very definitely back in the territory of the single author from whom all further opportunities flow.

The fact is books are different. This isn’t to take a stance in a debate about technologies; it’s to make an observation about the way human beings work.  Those of you familiar with neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf’s remarkable book Proust and the Squid will know that she, and many others, argue that reading electronically has an impact on the brain in a different way from reading the printed page.  Skimming and multitasking negatively affect the way the brain responds to text and, over time, if long-form reading declines, it may short circuit our reading brain, so that although we develop the skills necessary for gathering masses of information – we lose the critical, analytical, transformative reading skills that help to drive our intellectual and emotional development.

Early Norwegian research has also shown that reading electronically can result in less recall of the plot of a novel and more confusion following a narrative and multiple characters — the insight here being that the ultimate immersive experience connects better and is more memorable in physical form.

But there is no doubt that the transformative power of books can often be seen at its most stark with those who have never read, either because their literacy skills are too poor or because they have never discovered that reading can be a pleasure.  Research with emergent readers further proves that reading a book for the first time can give people tremendous self-confidence, a sense of well-being and can help them become more tolerant and accepting of those who are different from themselves — a crucial quality in today’s world.

Salman Rushdie has written of the way in which “books become part of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours — they become ours.”    It’s fascinating that, even today, the short story and the novella, as seen with the recent successes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift, are enjoying a dazzling new lease of life.  And yet the average number of pages in a bestseller has also grown by 25 percent since 1999.  We love living in the world of books, from Donna Tartt and Marlon James to Karl Ove Knausgård.

But for all the comfort we book-lovers may draw from such a statistic, we must not allow ourselves to stop experimenting with new forms of the written and the spoken word, just as we must not allow libraries to close or schools to swing so far towards the focus on STEM subjects that they fail to nurture the creativity and imagination that every child has.

We have recently seen a handful of talented YouTubers write bestsellers with a unique capacity to connect directly with their audience of millions of online followers which includes 75 percent of under-25-year-olds.  Interestingly, the majority of Zoella, Alfie Deyes, Dan & Phil books were sold in physical form as if the e-phenomenon of vlogging was given substance by physicality.

But we also need to look to the online social entrepreneurs like Suli Breaks and acknowledge the talent of Akala who quotes Shakespeare and hip-hop lyrics to highly educated audiences who can’t tell the difference between the two.  We need to celebrate the phenomenon of Kate Tempest, George the Poet and other, lesser-known spoken word poets like Franklyn Addo and MC Angel whose hour at Cheltenham Literature Festival fired up an audience that included both school kids and old-age pensioners.  While we champion the long-form we should also have the confidence to explore the alchemy that comes from young diverse writing talent and explore collaborating with coders and technicians.

‘The Individual Creator’

Because here, too, it’s the insight and passion of the individual creator, the author, that drives the experience.

As we move from a society that values the creation of a unique storehouse of ideas in each individual towards a society in which the emphasis is much more on socially constructed ideas and group approval, we must not allow the uniqueness of the author to degrade into the bleak functionality of a mere “content provider.”

We live in turbulent and confusing times, bombarded with fragmented and often sensationalist packets of information and images and, in response, we naturally crave some way of giving meaning and coherence to it all.  We want new and radical ideas that challenge us and give us hope.  And at the same time we want stories that engage and move and comfort us.  A high-tech, digital, conflict-ridden, multi-cultural world doesn’t render those desires irrelevant — it intensifies them.

Back in 2010 at a lunch for authors and journalists in Sydney, Australia, we were heatedly discussing the threat of increased online activity such as digital gaming on young minds.  One of the people present, David Malouf, a wonderful writer and a gentle friend, merely said, “Gail, you worry too much.  We all adapt. The author and the book will survive.”

So, for all the curious incidents I’ve seen in our industry since my days at the London College of Printing, the most curious — but the least surprising of all — is that the power of the book and the importance of the author haven’t changed at all.

This text of the Rebuck keynote address to the Quantum Conference was provided to Publishing Perspectives by London Book Fair.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.