The Window of Opportunity

Recent books I've designed

Books are magic. I’ve discussed that in some detail here. I use the word ‘magic’ in it’s right use, I believe, meaning ‘something that has an extraordinary effect whose mechanism we don’t understand’.

That’s how it is with books. If someone is an author, we think of them as the authority on the subject. We think of them as something special. We will pay more for their advice.

The reason we respect authors and their books is because we know deep down that it’s an amazing thing to get published. Aside from the actual writing, you have to be picked up by a ‘publisher’ who, in recognising your talent and greatness, verifies and validates your work. A published book has been approved by several experts who know a good book when they see it. A published book has gone through a process of peer review. Only the very best get published. A published book is a proper book. An unpublished book is like an unsigned rock band: if they were any good they’d have got a deal.

But there’s a problem. Now, almost, anyone can get a book out. It requires a little bit of skill and knowledge, but not much. Anyone can get a book ‘published’. All that requires is the tiny bit of know-how. It’s shockingly easy.

So what does that do to the magic of books? What does that do to our admiration for the published author? Does it mean that there’s a window of opportunity that having a published book still counts as cool, but in a short while when more people realise how easy it is, that glory will be undermined. So you’ve got a book out? So what?

We call it democratization. A leveling of the playing field. Now, more people can get into the previously invite-only members club of publishing. So what will happen next? Will the magic be undone?

Let’s have a look at previous democratisations for the answer. Here are a few:

Photography was the domain of the professional expert from its invention in the late 1800s until around the 1950s. Then it entered the domain of the committed hobbyist who had the cash to invest in it. Then cheap instamatic cameras and Polaroids in the 1970s opened it up to everyman. Now, ridiculously cheap digital cameras in recent years has made everyone a photographer. But there’s still a place for the photographic expert…

Filmmaking follows the same pattern. You needed serious cash to make films, even on consumer Super8 cinefilm up until the 1980s. Then VHS cameras, MiniDisc, digital tapes and then hard drives made everyone a filmmaker. But television programmes and movies are still made by committed professionals.

Graphic Design was one solely the domain of the draughtstman, illustrator or typographer. Their tools were indian ink, marker pens and lead. Desktop publishing became a reality only in the early 1990s when the tools changed to computers and software. The PC became cheaper. Ready made clip art appeared. Everyone can now be a graphic designer. But if having affordable professional tools was the answer, every Church magazine in the land would look like a quality periodical like those on the shelves in WH Smiths. Every PowerPoint presentation would inspire and compliment a speech perfectly. Every poster or flyer produced would be worthy of being framed and have prints sold in those poster shops. But clearly they aren’t.

Just as with photography, filmmaking and graphic design, having the right tools and the right methods does not create greatness in itself. You still have to create a quality piece. Quality work is produced by dedication, persistence, practice, research, willingness to learn, experience and perhaps a few other factors.

It’s likely that the world will become awash with new books written by new authors. But the magic will remain, but change form. Democratisation means everyone can do it, but it also means that we can’t and won’t rely on third party endorsement alone. The democratisation of publishing means we now have the power as writers to publish and as readers to judge for ourselves what is worth reading. The external filter has gone so we have to filter for ourselves.

More television channels gave us more telly. But it didn’t give us more good telly. Self publishing will give us more books to choose from, but not necessarily many more good books.

This is why, more than ever we have to focus on quality. Our books must be brilliant. They must look brilliant. Just being ‘published’ will soon not be enough…

Don’t just do a book – make it a good book.

This article came out of a conversation I had with Howard from www.oxfordcomputerservice.co.uk.

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