In his opening keynote at the London Book Fair’s Quantum conference, Stephen Page, CEO of publisher Faber & Faber drew upon his company’s 90 years of publishing history to point the way forward for publishers.
Drawing from a 1934 lecture titled “Are Publishers Any Use,” delivered by founder Jeffery Faber, Page said he found some of the challenges outlined decades ago to be “spookily familiar,” to some of the issues publishers face today. “We are again living in a time when new ideas and stories as well as new approaches to society and art are urgently needed,” Page said, suggesting that publishers must value both “the exciting new tools” at their disposal as well as the “lasting and important truths” that have always guided the industry.
In his 30-minute talk, Page, spoke of multiple “revolutions” in publishing in recent decades, including the rapid bookshop expansion of the 1980s; the birth of online bookselling in the 1990s; and the arrival of digital reading with the Amazon Kindle in 2007. And he noted the dawn of a new era for the industry, characterized by the advent of social media, digital marketing, transparent data, and “listening as reading.” And despite predictions a decade go that technology would upend the book business, Page said the industry today finds itself “on comparatively solid ground,” noting that the last four years have proven the most successful in Faber & Faber’s history.
Citing the “chaos” of Brexit and rising prejudice around the world, Page then rallied publishers to focus not only on their individual bottom lines, but on the unique and vital role publishers play in the cultural ecosystem, to stand with writers—the true center of the publishing world—in defense of new ideas; to add diverse voices; and to embrace a new generation entering the publishing industry with their own ideas of what future should look like.
“We do not have a right to simply take a financial slice of the commercial offset of culture,” Page said, citing the “darkening times” we live in. “Many things that I once took for granted are now being assaulted, ideas of truth, expertise, compassion, and tolerance.”
Page also offered a spirited defense of territorial copyrights, pushing back against those who would pursue a global English language market, whether publishers or retailers. “Territorial copyright must be at the center of our future,” Page said, pointing to the “sheer richness” of the independent publishing sector.
“We need to have the courage to fight for the values we believe in: free speech, respect for ideas and intellectual life, for copyright, and for the right of an artist to make a living and for our local markets," Page concluded. "We need to put writers first, and partner with them beyond the commercial. And we must remember that what we do matters. And because of that we have to act responsibly. To achieve this, we need to be clear about the things we do uniquely well in the world. Yes, there are new tools, new structures, and new opportunities. And they’re very important. But there are eternal truths too.”
Page’s talk kicked off the tenth edition of the London Book Fair's preconference event, and the fourth as the Quantum Conference.
Following Page’s keynote, author and consultant Alexandra Levit gave a short talk on the future of human-machine collaborations, seeking to assuage fears that machines will one day take over most of our jobs (only some of them, it turns out). And Bradley Metrock, CEO of Score publishing and an organizer of Digital Book World spoke about opportunities for publishers in voice-activated search, suggesting that publishers who don't maximize their discoverability through voice are losing sales.
The conference’s afternoon sessions, meanwhile are focused on the audio business, and new opportunities for publishers in TV and film adaptations.
The London Book Fair officially begins on Tuesday, March 12.