#AcBookWeek: Ecologies of Publishing Futures

On the 23rd November 2015 The Royal College of Art hosted a symposium to discuss the Ecologies of Publishing Futures. The symposium asked ‘How do designers engage in new ecologies and what is the future of publishing?’ Academics, designers, storytellers, publishers, and students spoke about this from international perspectives and debated over the book and its lifecycle, as well as the role of writing, designing, and the processes of mediating, distributing, and reading.

Amongst the speakers was Andrew Prescott, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and an AHRC Digital Transformation theme Leadership Fellow. He spoke from the perspective of a medievalist who has spent great deal of time studying manuscripts and records (writing his PhD thesis on the record of the Peasant’s Revolt 1381). Throughout his research, Prescott stated he was struck by the need to understand the wealth of information as physical artefacts, as well as just reading them as manuscripts. This work inspired him to continue on as a curator at the British Library, where he was part of a digitisation project which used special lighting techniques to discover the hidden letters underneath the repaired manuscript of Beowulf – burnt in a fire in 1731 and repaired in the nineteenth century. (Note: The Beowulf manuscript has been in The British Library’s possession since 1973 and a digitised version is now available to browse on their website, along with some additional information, here:http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beowulf)

Prescott spoke about how this work and his time at the British Library made him conscious of the hugely varied material forms of textuality. Historical documents can range from clay tablets to sound files and moving images, and, he argued, digital technology can help convey the wide-ranging nature of historical textuality. Digital technology also allows closer contact between libraries, archives, and museums. According to Prescott the important thing to take away from this is that dialogue with artists and designers is essential in articulating fresh perspectives on engagement with historical material. An example he cited was an art project by Fabio Antinori called Data Flags, which was exhibited at the V&A last year. He used conductive ink, which is often thought of as an analogue art form but can turn paper into circuits. Through other examples Prescott suggested that the textuality of art is always changing and shifting with the times and proved that the boundary between primary object, publication and interpretation is starting to be fundamentally restated. Prescott summed up his talk by ending on a somewhat cynical note: while all the possibilities he mentioned are there, people are bit taking advantage of them. His view is that the scholarly environment for an undergraduate today is less media-rich than it was forty years ago. Textbooks during his time as an undergraduate explored the potential of new printing methods, none of which have been followed through on.

Dan Franklin, Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House, had been given a brief to provide a provocation for the event on the state of digital publishing, so what he provided was a ‘where-we-are-now’ overview to provoke discussion and invite debate. He acknowledged the changes digital publishing is making to the publishing industry and talked about it from the perspective of someone who is in the midst of the shifting landscape.

Using an analogy of William Golding’s The Inheritors Franklin compared the plot of that novel, the collision of Neanderthal men and women with Homo sapiens, the people who would inherit the earth from them with the current state of the publishing industry. The analogy here being the moment of transition between print and digital, a short and historical moment of co-existence. And Franklin suggests that they can thrive with each other instead of being viewed as competitors. He recognises the urgency and potentially demoralising nature of change, but adds that it can also be exciting, depending on your viewpoint. As a digital publisher at Penguin Random House he motivates his team to explore the bleeding edges of this publishing transformation.

During this year Franklin stated he has seen some interesting and willful misinterpretations of what is happening in publishing. The fact of the matter is that 25%+ of publishers’ revenues are coming in via digital and that is not going to reverse. The “takeover” however, has not happened as quickly as people thought it would and Franklin states this is a testament to the formidable power of the printed book. Franklin is adamant that the word processor has not stopped writers continuing and developing the novel form so why should the innovation stop there? Franklin urges publishers to continue to be innovative with change and see what can come from it.

Professor Teal Triggs of the RCA stated that by talking about “ecologies” of the publishing industry, we can strive to understand the process of the lifecycle better and whether proposed models are going to be relevant. It’s important to look at the entire lifecycle, not just the editorial or author aspects but the design and distribution as well. Creative people think differently and their design thinking process can be a catalyst for forwar- thinking throughout the whole industry.


See Dan’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/@PRHDigital/an-earthquake-in-the-petrified-forest-86f6ffa5c85d#.jpyxy6pmq

See Andrews’s talk write-up here: https://medium.com/digital-riffs/are-we-doomed-to-a-word-of-pdfs-11f57edaf926#.9r1w3lyh2

See twitter hashtag #bookfutures for more information about the symposium and other related events.