What will publishing be like in fifty years? Will we be reading books from our brain implants? Will people still love print books but be printing and binding them in their home or office? Will reading increase because people will have more time as they travel in self-piloted personal drones?
The risks of
making such predictions become evident when we look at what knowledgeable people foresaw fifty years ago. Domed cities. Clothes made from asbestos. Mail delivered by parachute. (Oops! I guess that one isn’t so farfetched anymore!)
In The Publishing Experience, published in 1969, Cass Canfield does pretty well, however. This former editor and executive at Harper from 1924 to 1986 benefits from being broad and general. To put it more sympathetically, he keeps the big picture in mind.
First he takes up the insertion into the reading process of what he calls “machines”–electronic devices, audio recordings, interactive texts. So far so good, while wisely adding that he “must make the obvious qualification that a machine is of value only to the extent that an excellent teaching program is fed into it” (p. 68).
As a result the author’s role will change, he predicts, becoming concerned not just with writing books but also creating programs. And this will result, he says, in the merger of traditional publishers with “big electronic companies,” by which he means media companies. Yes, that has sometimes been true (for example, HarperCollins being owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp), but publishers have also tried to develop their own digital capabilities. More prominent has been the multiple mergers of the largest publishers with each other in their attempt to compete with Amazon.
For publishers today, Canfield’s comment in 1969 that “the changes in publishing over the past fifteen years are striking” comes off as quaint at best. But he concludes with this: “Techniques of conveying information will change and develop greatly, yet no one but the creative author can produce the required educational material and no one but the good editor can help him do so” (p. 69). Both halves of that sentence have proven to be quite durable in their accuracy.
Over the last fifty years, most of the best books and the best-selling books have continued to be single authored with a significant minority being coauthored. But writing and publishing have also continued to be community activities–authors, editors, designers, marketers, printers and more, all conspiring to entertain, educate and change people.