Project Team member Nick Canty (UCL) recently spoke at the two-day By the Book conference in Florence. This post is a brief report on the conference and some of the major themes and issues that emerged.
The overarching theme for this two-day conference was ‘Books and reading in an age of media overload’ – a big subject. We were fortunate the event was held in the rarefied location of the Villa Finaly outside Florence, which since 1953 has been owned by the 13 institutions which comprise the universities of Paris – this place is no stranger to big ideas.
The conference brought together scholars from the field of publishing studies to examine key issues around the digital transformation of the book, as well as to discuss the developing field of publishing studies. In total, 14 countries were represented, an increase on last year when the conference was first held.
The conference started with the evolution and transformation of reading with three presentations looking at cross-media storytelling and screen reading practices which suggested that the pdf has established itself as an influential format with its own sets of references and screen reading habits and will be likely to influence future devices and reading habits. This, it was argued, is because we see the connection to paper from the pdf. The final session was an analysis of student book-buying practices, which suggested students take little notice of reading lists and recommendations from academics, at least in Nanking, Pisa and Zadar. Of the three countries surveyed Chinese students were far more likely to be reading on smartphones.
Staying with the book, a later session considered the book as a dissemination machine with talks on design in digital textbooks, ebook trends in Poland and software as amplified content raising the question about whether software can be considered publishing. As with all large questions this defied any easy answers.
The session on scholarly publishing had three perspectives – one looking at the use of ebooks in Swedish academic libraries; a talk by Sally Hughes from Oxford Brookes University on how the Met Museum in New York had repurposed their back catalogue to create a free online resource; and a talk from Elsevier on value and exchange in scholarly publishing interactions, referencing John Thompson’s arguments around capital and value and supply chains in publishing.
Two papers specifically addressed editing. Susan Greenberg from Roehampton University talked about the poetics of editing with her definition of editing as a decision-making process – selecting, shaping and linking content – delivering the meaning of a work to its audience, and the art of seeing text as if it is not yet finished. As was pointed out, given the conference setting, this is rather like seeing the statue of David from a block of marble. Dr Greenberg argued that there were many studies which portrayed editors in a negative light, particularly in the 1940s concept as the gatekeeper, a concept now challenged as new media can democratise the field. Katherine Reeve from Bath Spa University made a powerful case for using editors better in publishing companies as they often offer the best ideas to promote and develop content – but they need to be given the opportunity to develop new skills. This was reinforced by Frania Hall from London College of Communication who discussed a recent survey with publishers in the UK which indicated that the editorial function is getting the least attention when looking at digital change.
I gave a paper on book culture, considering books in social spaces – particularly on YouTube – and how vloggers are being picked up by publishers with varying degrees of success. UCL’s Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s analysis of authors on WattPad asserted we are far from witnessing the death of the author and as pointed out by Professor Alexis Weedon from the University of Bedfordshire there is space to examine author brands as part of celebrity studies.
As with every conference on publishing, the issue of definitions reared its head. Zoran Velagic talked about the problems of definitions and how traditional methods to understand publishing (functional or linear chains as articulated by John Thompson) are redundant in the digital era. He suggested instead four new approaches: media-oriented – looking at what a book does to society; an author perspective – particularly because of the increase in self-publishing; a content view, which considers network participation and asks how capital can be maximised from content; and lastly a producer orientated approach, which looks at the author and content.
Claudio Piers Franco from the University of Bedfordshire introduced us to the concept of the ‘gamebook’ and to what extent different media formats have what might be considered ‘bookness’ in them, and considered the book as a social space, influenced by bloggers coming together in a shared space.
One interesting point to note is that despite various technological developments, the term ‘book’ persists.
Full programme from the 2015 conference available here:
Next year’s By the Book conference theme is audience development.