Three topics that publishers have been dealing with in recent years--technology, data, and free speech--were addressed in a series of lively presentations at the Association of American Publishers’ annual meeting held March 18 at Scholastic’s headquarters in New York City.
In a speech which drew nods of agreement from many members of the audience, Andrew Keen touched on the themes in his new book, The Internet Is Not the Answer (originally titled Epic Fucking Failure, according to the author). The growth of the Internet has affected all aspects of society and led to a major shift in the economy, Keen observed. But, rather than creating more economic equality, the advancement have forced the pendulum in the opposite direction.
The spread of the digital economy has compounded overall economic inequality, he explained, because of the “winner take all” ethos that digital leaders embrace. Keen pointed out that, at least for the moment, companies like Google have no significant competitors. One consequence of success in the digital economy has been an increase in unemployment, Keen noted, as the importance of experts--be they editors or taxi cab drivers--is minimized. The lack of full-time employment offered by the businesses created in the tech sector has contributed to the continued decline in the respect for labor, Keen maintained.
Another troubling aspect of the growth of the Internet has been the increase in surveillance, which has eroded the privacy protections of Americans, Keen said. The large Internet companies, especially the social media ones, are focused on “packaging people as products” as the companies “data mine” all aspects of Americans' lives.
But Keen is aware that there is no retreat from the economy the Internet has created. To live up to the promise the digital pioneers made about the Internet improving everyone’s lives, there needs to be more discipline and regulations, Keen advised. More regulation will not stifle innovation, Keen noted; it will help close the growing gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the country. While the digital leaders still like to see themselves as rebels, they really are the power brokers now, Keen said, and they need to take on the responsibilities that goes with that.
Keen also offered some specific advice for publishers, saying that they need to reinvent themselves to make sure that they make authors the center of everything they do. Publishers shouldn’t get distracted by technology, he said, and should focus on how they add value to promoting the careers of their authors.
In addressing the issues of free speech and diversity, Cornel West, currently a professor at Union Theological Seminary, said society needs publishers so that all types of ideas--even those he disagrees with--can be shared. “I will fight for the right of Rush Limbaugh to be wrong,” West said.
West noted that diversity isn’t merely measured by someone’s skin pigmentation, addressing an audience he described as looking "like a hockey team.” Publishers need to remain committed to “intellectual diversity,” he said.
Both West and the speaker following him, Irshad Manji, founder of the Moral Courage Project, said they disagreed with the recent decision by the president of Oklahoma University to expel students who created a racist video. Expelling the students had no educational value, Manji said. She would have preferred administrators engage with the students to discuss why they took the actions they did, and to explain why the video was wrong.
G. Sayeed Choudhury, associate dean for research data management at the Sheridan Libraries of John Hopkins Center, said the publishing industry--both libraries and publishers--should view all the information and data now being generated as “a new form of collection.” He acknowledged that data collections would be “fundamentally different” from what libraries typically house, and said data should be arranged as a “special collection.” Although libraries have begun to consider how they handle data, he said that publishers should examine what role they may play in housing and disseminating data.
In the very brief business part of the annual meeting, the chair of the organization was transferred from Brian Crawford, president of the publications division of the American Chemical Society, to Brian Murray, CEO of HarperCollins. In brief remarks, Tom Allen, CEO of AAP, observed that while much has changed in the industry during his six years at the organization, publishers seem much less “defensive” about the industry, and more certain of their role in spreading culture, literacy, and information.