Maps, classics, and other use cases, Duncan Enright on FBF 2014

One thing I was happy to come across at FBF this year, was books. It never fails to amaze me how much good, old fashioned publishing there is out there, which is easy to forget when you spend time on cutting edge digital projects.

Journals have completely changed of course – you won’t find many paper journal publishers nowadays, but books, it’s a different story.

The difference is the use case. The main use case of journals is to record, publicise and find research that people have done, then use it to inform further research, "standing on the shoulders of giants" as Newton suggested. It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much. So the move to digital has been a little smoother because there is one overwhelmingly common use case and a largely shared interest of authors and readers.

Books, on the other hand, have traditionally been used for a wide range of purposes. When I first went to FBF there were lots of publishers of directories – that’s all completely gone now. There are still lots of atlases about, because people like beautiful maps – but functional, navigational information has gone digital.

It’s similar story with classic books: there used to be workmanlike editions, published to make them accessible. Now you don’t get that so much, because they’re all available as free digital ebooks. What you do get is those same texts, annotated, or with study notes, or a new and important introduction, or in a glorious, beautiful folio edition or handy pocket volume. The nature of publishing in this area has totally changed.

One of the things Frankfurt is good at is giving beautiful publishing a great showcase. It’s always enjoyable to browse the publishers who package their products as sumptuous gifts, rather than library objects.

One thing I noticed was that the big e-learning companies, the education corporations with no publishing heritage but who are creating MOOCs and software and apps aplenty, just don’t go to FBF, so the major textbook companies are left dominating the floor. It is almost, at FBF, as if these left-field digital competitors don’t exist. But of course, they do, they just don’t go to Frankfurt. In other fields they are present even if not exhibiting, so for example PLOS roam the floor of the Fair along with the other evolving beasts of STM, where the digital players are more mature.

It’s important not to come away with a skewed view of the state of digital, when plenty of digital companies don’t have a stand. I presume they just can’t get a return on investment from being at a fair which is still mainly a place where publishers meet book buyers. The biggest beasts in the jungle, Amazon and Google were there, but just showing a leg not baring their teeth. Google in particular is fascinating; having changed the landscape for reference and learning, they concentrate on what is a pretty peripheral element of their vocation to do good: a modest presentation of Google Books.

On a personal level, I was there to catch up with people. Interestingly, and I’m sure everyone in the industry would say this, I’ve had lots of conversations with people that came about because of organising my time at Frankfurt – but those conversations didn’t necessarily happen on the floor at FBF, they happen the week before or the week after. As an industry we need these focal points to remind us to get in touch with each other, and that’s part of what makes FBF so important.

The thing I ended up talking about, more than anything, was the range of services that Maverick can offer. There are so many of us Mavericks now. We’re experienced in content, editorial work, sales and marketing, digital, technology projects, strategy, logistics… people are talking to us about all sorts of different potential projects.

The International Association of STM Publishers meeting takes place the day before the Fair opens, and was fascinating as usual. I particularly liked an interesting session on social media that made me think that we’re all in very different points in our journey. There was a great session with young academics talking about the difficulties they face. The divide between those with tenure, and those without, can be quite marked, and we are close to a point where aspiring academics are indentured servants to star academics, on zero-hour contracts below the living wage. Is this really how we think the best research is done? The publishers got an insight into how to influence the postdoc community to both read and submit, and the researchers had a chance to influence an important part of the wider academic community. It was a standout session that I hope we’ll see more of in future.  

Author: Duncan Enright