Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2

The following is the second part of a talk I gave at the APA’s Don’t Stet: Thinking About Tomorrow panel session on the future of the editor. You can find the first part here.

So, things are changing. But there are a lot of things we as editors can do to prepare ourselves.

We need to move away from the mental definition of a book being a printed object. Books are going to be different. Nobody knows exactly in what way, but the only way we can know what is going to work and what isn’t is to try new things. We need to experiment with publishing things that are probably not going to make much money, in the same way that we buy authors who aren’t going to make money because in three books’ time they might write a bestseller.

We also have to experiment with different kinds of reading. Below is a comment on a blog post I read recently about why someone would never want to start reading electronic books.

There is something about folding a paperback to snuggle down into the covers of a night. There’s something about being able to underline and use a highlighter for parts that stand out to you when reading and being able to put a date next to those. About being able to write notes with thoughts that have occurred when reading passages …

ALL this will no longer be possible if we lose the traditional book.

Books are my friends. Have been ever since I was young. They are an escape from life for a few hours to a distant land. A chance to grieve and mourn with others of a time long past when we read history …

Books in their printed hard or soft cover form also have something over the Kindle and other electronic forms of ‘books’. They will never run out of battery right in the middle of a really captivating part of the story, they can be read by anyone who can read the written language, so you don’t have to be up on the latest electronic gadgets. There is also the cost of a book compared to these newer readers.

Libraries also are WONDERFUL places to visit. The smells of the old books and the newer books as well.

I SO HOPE the paperbacks and hard covered books NEVER get taken away.

When I read this, I thought – what an idiot. And it’s not just because you can use a Kindle to write notes and highlight passages, or even that nobody is going to try and take printed books away  from anyone. It’s not even that line about books being the commenter’s friends. It’s because this kind of thinking is really common in the publishing industry, especially among editors.

And it is hubris to think that there is a right way and a wrong way to read books. Especially if you’re in the publishing industry. We are not passive consumers of books. Our choices help to define what a book is.

I know a whole lot of editors have ereaders already. But if you’re like the editors I know, you only use them so you don’t have to carry manuscripts around. When you want to relax with a book, you still curl up with the paper version.

Now there’s nothing wrong with having a preference for paper. There’s nothing wrong with this nostalgic, rosy-tinted view of books and reading. There’s also nothing wrong with thinking that books are your friends, either. But if you’re in the publishing industry, especially if you’re an editor, and you think of books in this protective ‘from my cold dead hands’ kind of way, then in less than five years time you’ll be ignoring the experience of a third of readers. And editors are supposed to be the reader’s advocate.

If we want to remain relevant, we need to innovate faster than our readers. We need to understand what readers want before they want it. Part of that is working out what kind of stories and content people want to read, and that’s something editors and publishers are already pretty good at. But another part of it is understanding how people want to read, and that’s not something we’ve had to think about for a long time. And if we start letting Amazon and Apple work that out for us, then we are going to end up working for Amazon and Apple. So we need to seek out new reading experiences, and try to understand them before they overtake us.

In our roles as author wranglers, we’re going to have to become, for some of our authors at least, the technology interpeter. If you’re not already familiar with the way Facebook and Twitter work, then it’s worth playing around with them. You can’t break the internet. Most authors in the next few years are going to have to develop a deep social networking presence, and if we want to remain relevant to them we have to know the answers before they start asking the questions.

Most of all, we need to learn to look past the limitations of technology and embrace the benefits. We no longer have the luxury of being precious about technology. It’s not worth focusing on the fact that you can’t read an ebook in the bath, or that you prefer the smell of paper books. The readers of the next ten years aren’t going to care about that. And if we want to publish books for those readers we need to know what they do care about.

And so to finish in the spirit of the structural edit, I just want to remind you that this is just my opinion – this is your industry. I eagerly anticipate your revisions.

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

4 thoughts on “Old Before Our Time: The Future of Editorial Part 2”

  1. Good to see someone else who thinks that the arrival of eBooks – even though it makes more work right now – is in fact a really interesting innovation. Doing it hands on is the only way to learn. If you’ve never seen an eBook check out the Spinifex eBookstore by going to our website and clicking on eBooks:
    http://www.spinifexpress.com.au

  2. I wear a few hats: a journalist and occasional author who writes and sub-edits for print and television to keep my bookshop from going under. It’s a sports and travel bookshop (don’t ask) so a) we have customers who seek us out and b) our customer base is spread across every age group and technical ability. We don’t believe our “skills and drills” coaching books will disappear. Kids and coaches like to throw them into the sports duffel bag and treat them roughly. But older customers, especially the retirees, are already learning to download individual book chapters according to their travel itineraries, rather than buying an entire guide to a region. And instead of buying DVDs of Top Soccer Goals or Funniest Footy moments, for example, the younger customers are downloading them from You Tube. That’s our everyday experience in-store and through our international web-shop.
    We know there will be no room for booksellers in the distribution of digital media. At the APA’s Digital Symposium, we heard the speaker from Google stress that Google didn’t want to get into the business of bookselling. But why would any computer user who finds what they’re after using the Google search engine take the time to click onto another site when they will be able to would redirect users to other sites where – but why not?

  3. That’s a very good point, and with the launch of Google eBooks today, we will have an opportunity to see how this mechanism of openness plays itself out. I suspect that you’re right – many people looking to buy digital books are going to seek out new ways of acquiring them, and that gives Google a massive advantage, even if they are opening their store up to whitelisting for indies.

    Having said that, if you’re a local bookseller and you’re invested and up-to-date on ebooks, then you are in a unique position to advise your customers on how to buy ebooks, what device they could buy and therefore influence them to buy from you. If you can remain a vital part of your customer’s book-buying experience, then you can still be a part of the digital book future. But to do that, you’ll need to embrace ebooks yourself!

  4. Apropos knowing what readers want…. Someone tell Amazon that some of us see reading as a private activity and many see it as a part of their personality or image and hence, ads on ereader’s are a bit of an affront. Of course now I’ll look really silly if the whole ads thing takes off! ;).

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