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Safe As Houses?: Why Publishing Should Not Fear the Cynics

Safe As Houses?: Why Publishing Should Not Fear the Cynics

Richard Mollet, 01 December 2014

From any perspective it is clear that our society is suffering from a crisis of trust.  From UKIP to Russell Brand, to FIFA the EU and back again, British voters and citizens are subjecting the established order to the sort of sceptical forensic examination usually reserved for buying used cars.  In many cases the inspection is being failed.

No businesses are immune from this trend to cynicism, and publishing cannot expect to be exempt from scrutiny.  Many other sectors have already been propelled into the pit of cynicism of which we now stand on the rapidly eroding leading edge.

Publishers’ historic mission as welcoming gate-opener is being rewritten by some as that of the sullen gatekeeper.  Attempts to curate a canon, to funnel knowledge and information into a usable form, to have the temerity to advise on how education should be imparted are all examples of highly suspicious behaviour in the new zeitgeist.  The world view puts a premium on the new. Legitimacy lies in that which is untainted by expertise.  The status quo ante is heartily disparaged. It is a travesty; but it is a view we have to deal with.

So is the reputation of publishing doomed to follow that of MPs and bankers over the precipice?  Well not necessarily, and for three reasons.

First of all, those first on the receiving end of public opprobrium actually had done something wrong.  In some cases, like fixing Libor or foreign exchange rates, perhaps almost criminally so; but in others just “mucked up” wrong.  The stunning lack of competence on the part of financial regulators or assessors of bundled credit default options has rightly put them in the frame and these failures lie at the heart of their loss of trust.  Publishers are quite innocent of any similar activity.

Secondly, publishers have a stronger hinterland of natural supporters who - whilst not necessarily cheerleaders for the industry – are, at least, likely to give it a fair hearing and even tacit support.  Whereas even before the expenses scandal hit home the only people who would stand up for MPs were parliamentarians themselves, there are least authors and readers who, by and large, may carry a torch for publishing and an understanding of its inherent value.  No one who ever voted did so solely for the pleasure of it.

Third, unlike those who were first hit by this wave of distrust and did not see it coming, we have.  This has given us the time and space to innovate and to correct any short-term shortcomings before they become chronic failings.  Where there are changes to be made to business models, operating assumptions to amend or new relationships to form, we have the ability to act.  There is a great deal of wriggle room to use up.

For these reasons, the all too familiar trope – still beloved of the Pirate Party or the research council-funded industry-bashing CREATe project - that the “legacy creative industries” are doomed strikes me as utterly false.  It is based in part upon a mis-placed hope, and in other part on mis-reading of the social and economic circumstances we operate in.