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The Future of Book Publishing

This week sees the inaugural Ecologies of Publishing Futures symposium – a collaborative enquiry fostered by the Royal College of Art, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), RMIT University and Thames & Hudson Publishers (T&H). RCABlog talks to Professor Teal Triggs about exploring possible futures of writing, reading, designing and disseminating published material.

‘Engaging with the RCA brings in the unexpected, the explosive,’ says Teal Triggs, ‘taking what we know about the book and potential publishing futures, jostling them about, pulling them apart – arriving at something that you would never have dreamed of.’

It’s widely recognised that the digital age has put conventional publishing at stake. In the context of virtual reality and immersive, digital, experiential reader engagement – what is reading? What do we in the twenty-first century mean by ‘the book’? And what will be the futures of that physical object and its digital counterparts, the spaces around them and the ways people interact with them? 

If we think of the book as a receptacle and a disseminator rather than a conventional object, we can start to unpack our understanding of what it means to have a containing framework for knowledge, thinking, information, ideas and storytelling, and what it means to disseminate that, to publish it into the world – whether in print, digitally, or through a blended medium.

For those inside the publishing profession, it seems that new forms are proposed regularly: multiple models that claim to redefine the relationship with readerships. Mainstream publishing has moved on from proclaiming the death of the book, and has come to see the physical book as a specialised – but still economically viable – market proposition. Similarly, its digital sibling has grown up, from an undervalued ‘cuckoo in the nest’, to a vehicle for serious information dissemination and storytelling that has radical possibilities for transforming the ways we as readers assimilate information.

We need now to interrogate these models through user-centred, ethnographic design practices – because our interest is not just with the object, it’s in the interactions, the behaviours, the ways in which stories are told, in which information is created and disseminated, the locations where these transactions take place: 

Who is that reader? How are they interacting and in what kind of spaces? Are they engaging with textual or infographic knowledge, or a combination of two? Where does a reader interact with knowledge, with storytelling? Is that a physical or a virtual space? And what does that reader want? High-end design, robust information or simply convenience?

The relationship between the reader and book itself gives us opportunities to explore and redefine what we understand that 'publication' to be, and to explore fluidities between the physical, printed space, the digital space and the environment in which that interaction is taking place.

Looking at the physical in relation to the digital questions both the integrity of the object and its lifecycle – publishing. By talking about ‘ecologies’, we seek to understand better what we mean by this industry lifecycle (which encompasses author, designer, marketing, publishing and distribution) and whether proposed models are going to be relevant. For example, independent publishers are already moving towards crowdsourced funding, putting even the notion of authorial ownership into question.

The symposium was a catalyst to beginning to scope – as a collaborative research project -– the thinking behind publishing at the moment, by asking: ‘what is the publishing industry?’ not just ‘what is the book?’. In bringing together a breadth of speakers, from academia to industry, to the design profession, we were able to curate what relevant future ‘publications' might actually be.

Neville Brody has a phrase, ‘thinking design’, that expresses something about the lateral, alternative thinking that grows out of RCA’s creative design process, and what we bring to a conversation. Thinking design is creatively structural, analytic and diagrammatic, where industry’s standard approaches are iterative and linear, building on tested models. It’s also luxurious, because it draws in diverse disciplines and multiple areas of expertise and exploration, starting with the core premise that everything is a design problem.

By looking through a design lens rather than a mainstream publishing perspective – within a generative, entrepreneurial innovation space that combines teaching, research and knowledge exchange with industry – we can work in partnership to interrogate, explore, experiment and engage critically with ideas, to reframe where the agile independent publisher might be headed and bring new thinking about the ecologies of publishing into the world.

While academia isn’t neutral, its discursive space is not yet wholly dependent on an economic model that’s driven by a short-term imperative to monetise, and that brings with it some freedoms that are not available in industry. In this case, a more experimental model that’s fluid across all possible technologies and unconstrained by the structural conventions of contemporary publishing.

Creative people think and solve problems differently. Our design thinking process is a facilitator for conversations that people don’t have in industry. We know the right questions to ask, to get that discourse going with the people who matter. We use the tools of communication to help elicit particular kinds of conversations to be meaningful and deeper, and pull them back in to making collaborations with tangible outcomes.

Putting diverse skill bases in the mix encourages an outcome where we can begin to impact as a group of academics, industry and design professionals through knowledge exchange and other research opportunities. It’s through these combined efforts that innovation happens.

Calling the conversation ‘ecologies’ announced our intention to map and explore the landscape. The provocations at the symposium were exciting for everyone who attended, and we expect the interchange that follows to be explosive, to throw expectations and conventions into the air, so ‘publishing’ can be seen in new contexts. The pieces will land in unexpected places, and our design filter will provide the means to explore new and multivalent paradigms. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but have faith that what follows will be unique and fruitful.


The Ecologies of Publishing Futures symposium took place at the RCA on Monday 23 November 2015 Download PDF programme

See Twitter #bookfutures for more information about the symposium and other related events. 

The School of Communication’s Book Futures Lab launched at the symposium, to provide an experimental, lab model as a focus for collaborative investigation into the future of the book.

If you would like to join the conversation, email bookfutureslab@rca.ac.uk 

Ecologies of Publishing Futures
Ecologies of Publishing Futures