Will today’s existing conglomerates continue to dominate the future of publishing? Or, will technology enable a rising tide of upstarts and independents that will forever change the publishing landscape? That was the question at the heart of the London Book Fair’s Second Annual Great Debate, which put forth the following resolution: In the fight for survival, outsiders and startups are taking on today’s heavyweights and will ultimately deliver a knockout punch.
The debate was moderated by Daily Lit’s Susan Danziger and Copyright Clearance Center’s Michael Healy. Arguing for the resolution that digital upstarts are the future: Allen Lau, CEO and founder of Wattpad, and Bob Young, CEO and founder of Lulu.com. Arguing against the resolution that traditional publishers will maintain their position of power: Evan Schnittman, soon to be chief marketing officer at Hachette, and Fionnuala Duggan, managing director (International) at CourseSmart.
Rather surprisingly for a book fair, the audience seemed willing to accept there was a new world order in store for publishing: The pre-debate poll, Healey noted, revealed 88 for the resolution; 37 against; but a hefty 82 undecided—then the fun began.
Can the upstarts win? “We already have,” noted a rather gleeful Bob Young. He cited Wikipedia’s rise, and the decision of the centuries-old Encyclopaedia Britannica to cease printing, and noted that just decades ago, there was no Amazon, or Google. He looked to a fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, to make his point: it takes new generations to fully grasp new media—and traditional publishers, he argued, were decidedly old school.
“We adapt,” rebutted Hachette’s Evan Schnittman. From indie bookstores to the chains, from Amazon and Google, to the Kindle, publishing has faced challenges, and these challenges have made them more efficient, and driven sales and earnings to higher levels. “Disruption,” Schnittman said, “makes us stronger.”
Wattpad’s Allen Lau responded by going for publishing’s jugular. “New players always win,” Lau said, echoing his teammate’s view. “And it’s no exception for the publishing industry. The Internet has already created new heavyweights.” For the first time in history, Lau noted, anyone can share stories directly with anyone else, anywhere in the world. As for publishing’s gatekeeper role—no longer needed. From crowdsourcing to social networking, the Internet is doing that job now. He also pointed out the Web’s economics, calling the Internet a deflationary medium, and taking a playful dig at the major publishers’ legal troubles with the DoJ in America. “The marginal cost of creating copies is now zero,” he said, “price fixing or not.”
Duggan anchored the publishers’ argument by noting that while it is true that anyone can publish these days, all those writers who do self-publish successfully ultimately wind up with traditional publishers. “We’re in a perfect storm of innovation,” she posited, “and the publishing industry has responded magnificently. This is a hallelujah moment for publishing.” In her closing, she referenced the value added by publishers, asking Lau if he’d ever go to a movie theater to watch an hour and a half of YouTube Clips.
While the two sides obviously have some genuine disagreement, it was quite obvious that the resolution was designed to be provocative, and the two sides were playing their parts. In fact, it was clear that both sides believed the future does not hold a knockout blow. Throughout a brief question and answer period, both sides spoke of the value of new technology and traditional publishing have to offer, and occasionally seemed to argue the other's point.
The final verdict: a stirring comeback for the publisher side, who turned the crowd around. In the final tally, 41 supported the resolution, 147 opposed, 13 undecided.