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International Publishing: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

2017-03-08 14:04:02
by Richard Charkin

In 2015 and 2016,I was President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), having previously served as Vice-President and Executive Committee member for several years. 

You might therefore think that I know what international publishing is all about but, truth be known, I am no wiser now than when I started! However, one thing I am certain of is that the organisation is stronger now than it was then by virtue of the election of national publishers’ associations from Bangladesh, China, Côte d’Ivoire, Greece, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Peru, and Senegal. IPA now represents many tens of thousands of publishing companies worldwide which service a market of 5.6 billion people. 

My starting point is that international publishing means supporting our authors through the dissemination of their intellectual property throughout the world in all formats and in all languages – and making sure we stay in business while doing so. 

· The good

The last fifty years have seen innumerable mergers and acquisitions of publishing companies and in nearly all cases these have resulted in enhancing the global reach of publishing. This is particularly true in English-language publishing but Spanish and Portuguese are not far behind. Organisations such as Bertelsmann, RELX, Santillana, Pearson, Hachette, Bonnier, Holtzbrinck, Springer Nature and many others can all offer global, frequently multi-lingual and multi-technology intellectual property distribution. They are large corporations with the financial resources to build and grow from, in most cases, a European base with a strong American footprint. 

Alongside these behemoths are smaller (arguably more light-footed) competitors that are able to outsource much of the logistics of distribution to third parties and focus on the pure publishing activities of identifying the best books, enhancing them, and marketing them. Technology has made it possible to support authors and reach readers worldwide to a far greater extent than was imaginable even ten years ago. Companies such as Chronicle in San Francisco, Hardie Grant in Melbourne, Hindawi in Cairo, World Scientific in Singapore, and Kalimat in UAE are all examples of what can be achieved internationally from a smaller base. 

And then there are the very large national publishing companies around the world that are still focussing on their traditional domestic markets but which could now turn some of their attention and resources outwards. There are so many exciting, professionallymanaged, and well-capitalised publishers in India, China, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and elsewhere which could extend their reach and begin to challenge the largest corporations in the publishing world.

Intense competition has always been the driver of publishing success and innovation. The more companies that compete in the international arena, the better for the industry as a whole. The other megatrend of the last twenty years has, of course, been digital transformation, and we can say with certainty that the international publishing industry has embraced, rather than retreated from the digital challenge. Examples abound. RELX’s investment in the online platform, Science Direct; Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw; Macmillan’s English Campus; the runaway success of the Kindle; the launch of any number of digital resources; the digitisation ofimportant archives; open access for scientific publications; teacher support for education; development and adoption of Creative Commons licences; facilitation of scholarship and education through reproductive rights organisations; and much else. 

Unlike some other creative industries, international publishing has to a large extent avoided the twin threats of audience alienation and lost income. 

· The bad

In general book publishing there has been a trend in some countries for rights in a book to be carved up, leaving the originating publisher with little more than the right to sell print copies in a defined language in a defined territory. The argument is that publishers are not capable of handling these rights on behalf of the author. Whilst this may sometimes be true, it does mean that author-publisher relations have become more complex, with a tendency to conflict over terms, rights, and control. This has increased overheads for publishers and reduced their ability to maximise income from all distribution routes, which further undermines the vital commitment of publisher to author. 

At the other end of the value chain there has been enormous consolidation of retail distribution channels leading to market dominance for a few companies in areas of vital importance to publishers. These retailers have developed brilliant systems for serving book buyers with levels of service which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But that degree of resultant power potentially detracts from the publisher’s ability to price, market and distribute effectively. 

Educational publishing is at the heart of our industry nowhere more than in emerging economies, where the bulk of books are published for the school market. The best school books are the result of locally-sourced competitive creativity, where publishers vie with each other to produce the best books for a particular curriculum, with the best design, the best marketing and the most attractive pricing for teachers, students and schools. Unfortunately some governments have tried or are trying to “nationalise” educational publishing either for propagandist or political reasons. Nationalising education publishing doesn’t work but persuading governments to allow competition for schoolchildren’s ears, eyes and brains can be a tough assignment. 

Copyright is the lifeblood of all publishing and all creative endeavour. It has shown itself to be simple, effective and, most importantly, adaptable. But there are those in government and in some global technology companies who continually ask whether copyright is fit for purpose in the digital age. The answer is yes, copyright is fit for the digital age. What is more, copyright should be allowed to adapt without being forced into unnecessarily complex and typically counterproductive changes driven by groups with vested political or commercial interests. The pressure to create ever more exceptions to copyright for specific purposes has grown and threatens its spirit. As we say in English, The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. 

· The ugly

Here I must stray into the world of global politics. Publishing is about allowing creative writers, novelists, poets, scientists, educators, illustrators, historians, philosophers, economists to reach their audience freely even when their ideas might appear controversial or simply in bad taste. 

In recent years we have seen appalling cases of authors and publishers being restricted. The IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee is a powerful force for good in this area, awarding each year the IPA Prix Voltaire to spotlight some of the most grievous cases and celebrate courage in publishing. 

But not all abuse is politically or ideologically driven. Some of the largest and most powerful technology companies have assumed the role of censor, decreeing what can or cannot be read by the public. In some ways this new creeping threat to freedom to publish is more insidious than the traditional blunt instruments of government censorship and intimidation. 

· Reasons to be Cheerful

I cannot end on an ugly note, so let me celebrate a few of the many reasons for optimism about international publishing. Worldwide book and journal publishing is larger than all other creative sector industries – movies, music, magazines, and videogames. Moreover, the original product, the physical book, shows no sign of diminishing in attractiveness or size of market. 

The digital transformation has been overwhelmingly positive for writers, illustrators, scientists, and educators as the world’s publishers have embraced technology and used it to supplement their print activities. International publishing can still lower cultural barriers through better understanding and communication. 

Copyright, the most powerful enabler of creativity, has shown itself to be both strong and adaptable. We understand the centrality of the author and the need to focus on ever better author service. 

Our industry does not depend on government patronage or fickle sponsorship – it depends on people buying our products because they are essential or entertaining or educational, which is a far more sustainable and forthright business model. 

International publishing is in good vibrant health with more opportunities than threats and a brilliant entrepreneurial work force. 

What’s not to love?

2017-03-08 14:04:02
by Richard Charkin


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