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Will Publishing Survive?

A Symposium

February 25, 2001

True, it is now more difficult to nurture idea books and encourage the kinds of structural changes that make a good book great. Part of this is a result of budgetary pressure dictating schedules, but part of it also reflects--as all publishing must--the pressure and pace of our own culture. Anyone who wants to publish a book on an important subject of the day must get it out quickly before the debate shifts. So-called Big Think books, those that measure long-term cultural and intellectual changes, often get short shrift at the acquisition stage, since they are so hard to position in today's marketplace. One of the great things about working at a university press is that there is still a commitment to publishing books that take a bit more time to develop and that may not fit on any obvious hooks.

As for our future employment possibilities, I have what may be an idealistic belief that there will always be a job for people who can mediate between serious ideas and the people who consume them. Our roles as selectors and shapers of important work won't change when the book gives way to the e-book, y-book or whatever other media emerge. We will have to make the case continuously for the value we add to a project at every stage and do our best to maximize that value. Editors, in particular, will have to devote more of our energy to learning how to publish books from beginning to end. We'll have to give our books the same care when we present them to our sales and marketing colleagues that we give them when we edit them. And we'll still continue to cast our nets wide, keeping contacts with everyone in the media, book review and Internet communities who might possibly want to talk about our books.

Publishers will have to work harder and harder to keep up with new ways of disseminating content in the years to come. Many of the challenges we now face are so new that we haven't yet invented a common vocabulary with which to discuss them. My hope, as each age of publishing grows shorter, is that editors will continue to find new ways to bring ideas to the public.


Tim Bartlett is senior editor for politics and current affairs at Oxford University Press.


Once upon a time there was a crisis in the monasteries of Old Europe. It would be called the Dark Ages because no one was enlightened, i.e. there were no hard sciences to earn a doctor's degree in; even being literate did not mean that understanding followed from the preservation and distribution of information. Not everyone who knew how to write a book could read what he had copied. It was at the end of the Dark Ages but, of course, the people living at that time didn't know it; for them it felt like they were still in the middle of that time. Handmade folios were still the latest development toward the ultimate goal: mass-produced books in their optimal form.

However, no one knew that would be the ultimate goal because by the time rumor of Gutenberg's invention of movable type sent panic throughout the monks' cells (despite the absence of cell phones), the well-established methods then in use were the habits considered optimal at that time and no one imagined that second or third generation of anything might refer to technological rather than biological reproduction. By the habits of their time, hand-made editions of texts, often exquisitely illustrated, were recreated one at a time. That was as far toward the invisible goal as the eyes in the Dark Ages could see. No wonder the rumor of mechanical reproduction sent panic through the copyists. Would they have to undergo retraining and hope to master new skills in order to "print" books? Would they be equal to the challenge?

No one knew the answer before the event or kept track of how the readers and the writers adapted to the innovation; nobody kept score. The questions and the predictions were part of the challenge. At least, that's the way we think of their problems now.

Once again the frightening words of a crisis stalk the world of books and book people. Rumors of innovations fatal to the habits established during the past 400 years spread like wildfire. If you ask the representatives of publishing--authors, editors, printers, bookstore clerks, sales reps, et al.,--those imagined to know the answer to the question: "What is the state of publishing in the United States today?"--the answer will be: "Perilous!" Vulnerable, exposed, attacked on all sides, fearful publishers drag themselves about, head bent, under a cloud, wringing their hands.

The state of publishing is a Condition of Danger. The industry is threatened both from outside and from within.

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