Publishing: the first Among Equals

It is with great wistfulness that I write my final blog for The PA’s website and bid farewell to very many friends and colleagues in The PA and beyond; but because in my new role with the RELX Group I will continue to see a great deal of some people and think about many of the same issues, the subject of change versus permanence is very much in mind.

Society exists with and, you might even say, thrives upon the tension between the old and the new. There is as much to be said for the benefits of having access to decades and centuries of accumulated wisdom and culture as there is for the joys of exploration, innovation and discovery. Even the recently late but always great David Bowie built upon blues and rock foundations as he took music forward into uncharted territory.

This fault-line runs as a permanent crack through our history - the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the growth of Christianity and no doubt all global civilisations. The first person ever to say “don’t reinvent the wheel” may have actually just been protecting their stone age patent, but it was telling advice nevertheless (and they were no doubt delighted when someone then went on to invent the axle).

The trick to achieving a successful and harmonious society would seem to be never to get caught on one side or the other of this fissure, but to maintain a stance astride it – ever aware of the old but always ready to engage with the new. By extension, it is clearly important never to let the gap grow too wide to the point where it becomes necessary to be either dogmatically conservative or bigotedly iconoclastic.

Publishing is the means by which a society solves this conundrum. It is at the vanguard of efforts to take forward knowledge and culture whilst maintaining connection with the rear echelons of established approaches. Publishing is the very means by which society takes itself forward; it is not part of society’s baggage, it’s the vehicle which conveys the baggage. It is this feature which makes publishing unique amongst the creative and knowledge economy sectors.

Like a fractal pattern, this dynamic can be seen at play both in detailed close-up and when zooming out to look at the macro picture, from questions about the balance in the market place between e-books and physical books, through to the importance of allowing access to new research whilst having an accessible platform with all of the research. These issues and everything in between are part of the same eternal debate.

That is why, by the way, I have always thought that the perennial Big Question as to whether “publishing can survive in the digital age” is a bit daft. If publishing fails, society itself will fail. If there is no longer any method by which ideas and knowledge are transported across geographies and generations then you can say goodbye to whatever current notion of society you have. Now, sure, the nature of publishing will change, different technologies will come to the fore, different products and services will evolve. But they will all be – axiomatically – part of publishing.

For this, publishing is the first among equals as an economic sector. Other creative industries certainly have great importance in being the porters of a society’s memes, but their newness counts against them. It can hardly be doubted that our society could exist without films and video games since it has done so for centuries. Likewise, but to a lesser degree, music. The information - in its purest sense - being carried forward by the music sector from one generation to the next is vitally important. But its importance is restricted to the silo of those who play and enjoy music. There is some greater benefit to society from music (productive efficiency, emotional resonance, et al) but even its greatest proponents would have to confess this has its limits and certainly comes nowhere close to that delivered by the written word. “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” is a metaphor, but the published research in medical journals literally did.

The British and international publishing sector is truly remarkable and it is an honour and pleasure to work in it.



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Thursday, 26 November 2020

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