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Future Human: Smash Publishing

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Last night I went to an event held by the salonnières Future Human called “Smash Publishing”. It was a lively, thought-provoking evening, and although I didn’t agree with everything that was argued, I did come away feeling glad that I’d attended.

I shan’t try and précis the whole night (far too much was said for that: if you’d like a live commentary of the whole event, the #futurehuman hashtag on Twitter is a good place to start), but I thought I’d address one of the main propositions of the evening – that publishing is broken and needs fixing (or replacing) – with two philosophical paradoxes.

The first is a very old and well-known one, most famously phrased by Plutarch as the Ship of Theseus. In this version of the story, Plutarch asks his pupils to define the “essence” of Theseus’s ship. If one plank of the ship rots and is replaced, it’s fair to assume that most people will consider the object as a whole to be the same “thing”: it is still the ship of Theseus. How about after five planks have rotted and been replaced? Is it still “Theseus’s ship” then? How about after ten? What about after, over many years, every single plank has decayed with a new one installed in its place?

The paradox is a perfect one because it can be applied to so many circumstances – and even, it occurred to me last night, the state of our industry. When people say that publishing is “broken”, or unfit for purpose, it seems that many of them are referring to the industry as it existed some time ago, but not necessarily as it operates now. Henry Volans of Faber Digital, speaking on the final panel of the evening, summed this up very well when he observed that many people’s ideas of what a publisher is for are antiquated ones, noting that he couldn’t think of a single publishing house who still printed their books themselves. Although it may not look like it from the outside – because, eighty years after being founded, the company still has the same name – Faber and Faber does quite different things to those that it did in 1929 (look at its wonderful Sonnets and The Waste Land apps). Publishers evolve, and even if you cannot identify the exact point at which, like Theseus’s ship, they stop being one thing and start being another, that isn’t to say the change hasn’t happened.

The second paradox is not quite so well-known, at least in the form that I know it. If we did away with our entire legal system – every law and arm of justice – and replaced it with a thousand very intelligent people who made decisions on behalf of the country, what would happen? The interesting thing about this question is that if you ask it of someone, they will quite rapidly reconstruct the infrastructure that you have just abolished. “A thousand very intelligent people” sound quite like judges, of course. And the “decisions” they make will quite closely resemble laws.

A number of the suggestions that were made last night as alternative models to “traditional” publishing seemed to be quite similar to the thousand intelligent people – that is, they weren’t that far from being identical to the thing they were supposedly replacing. The always-interesting Joanna Penn, speaking on the same panel as Henry, suggested that authors who choose to eschew mainstream publishing houses in favour of self-publishing would be well served by using freelance editors and cover designers to help sell their book. Editing and designing book covers are exactly the sorts of things that publishers do, though – the only difference between the “traditional” model and this one is who pays for those services.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t things that publishers should do better, of course. But I don’t think that we are “broken”. If you were at Future Human, I’d love to hear your thoughts (especially if you disagree with everything I’ve written).

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