We headed to the Scottish Book Trade Conference last week, hosted by Publishing Scotland and the Bookseller’s Association, for an interesting day looking into various aspects of the industry with a wide range of speakers.
“We’re extraordinarily fortunate to work with books.”
The morning began with Andrew Franklin of Profile Books delivering a keynote that put the industry through a good ol’ SWOT analysis, after noting that “we’re extraordinarily fortunate to work with books.”
A strength of the industry is the authors, as everything in our world begins with them. In terms of children’s publishing, we’re in a golden age of creativity. He’s been told constantly that the novel is dead or dying, but it isn’t – far from it. “Creativity doesn’t end with the writers,” he concludes, highlighting that it’s a long creative process where many have input.
Publishers have put a huge effort and imagination into covers and jackets. He leads us through the evolution of one of Profile’s own covers, admitting that even then they’re not sure that they got it right, as well as bold Harry Potter covers from around the world. Ultimately, “what we do is an art, not a science.”
“I want to pay tribute to bookshops,” he continues. They’re a constant triumph of hope over experience. They spearhead things like the reading group, which he says people can forget about at their peril. This is one of many strong and enduring parts of the literary scene.
Revenge of the analogue.
Then comes the book festivals, where they can “bring writers to readers”. He himself always wondered, why do people part with £10 to see a writer for an hour, but not £7.99 to buy their book? It remains a mystery, but the next strength is our luck in being English language publishers. The Dutch language has a market of 18 million, Danish 5.5 million, Scots 5.5 million. There’s over 1 billion readers in English across the world. This helps our indie scene, which is far higher in volume than that in America.
But what about the weaknesses? Our most serious weak spot is small readerships. He dubs our literacy levels a national disgrace. There’s a modest but real return to reading with companies like Twitter and their bitesize content in decline, or, “Revenge of the analogue”, if you will. Colouring books alone are enough to highlight the success of people turning away from digital for just a moment.
Andrew did question whether self-publishing was a threat or a weakness, but he thinks the publishing industry’s oversight in seeking talent in self-publishing is ultimately a weakness. The problem is the majority aren’t up to par, but finding those who are is magnificent, which is why they’re often signed to large publishers.
Then comes Amazon and their desire to take over the world. Their qualms with the company feel like an ant being troubled by an angry rhinoceros, but despite having £4 billion in turnover, they paid less tax than Profile Books, and probably many companies present in the room.
“The world of books is in great flux.”
So where are the opportunities? “The world of books is in great flux,” he notes. Our world has changed more in the last decade than the last 100 years. Exporting books to the international English readership is an opportunity, and it’s great to see so many Scottish firms utilising this.
Then comes diversity, which he admits is dismal in London. There is a great pool of talent being shamelessly missed, and the industry is starting to react to that. The opportunities that can come from this are boundless.
E-books can reach readers in new ways, print on demand allows for short runs and books never going out of print. He dismisses the idea that the future of reading lies on mobile, but that the searchability of books, aided by these devices, has been a great help.
Then comes the threats. “Education cuts are a crime against humanity,” he states, and one that we will “pay for for years to come.” Brexit could be an interesting complication, and Amazon and Google are constantly pushing themselves as a bigger threat. “What is theirs is theirs, what is ours is theirs.”
“Any company that strives to be a monopoly is an enemy,” he continues. “They’re secretive on their information but free with everyone else’s.”
Writing is not a lucrative career, so does this mean only people who can afford to write will in the future? Will working so many jobs to afford that not eat up the time for some great books to be written?
While the SWOT takes us through the good and bad, and through a whole range of topics, he doesn’t want to end on a negative. Instead, Andrew reinforces that our trade is in very good shape, and that there’s a lot of positives to hold on to in the industry.