Lunchtime Lecture with Michael Bhaskar
by Hannah Bright
We sit there patiently, food in hand, waiting. We’re not trapped inside a certain high street bookshop - we are waiting for Michael Bhaskar, author of The Content Machine, and Digital Publisher at Profile Books.
“These lectures”, he starts, “are hot off the press. This is the biggest time in the publishing industry since Gutenberg developed the printing press”. We sit up, listening intently. He emphasises that publishing has differed throughout history, according to sector, geographical location and type of publishing. “What publishing meant in one era doesn’t mean the same today”.
Bhaskar then goes on to talk about content - arguably the most important aspect in publishing - with particular focus on the disintermediation of it. He suggests that books are physical frames for content, used as both a distribution mechanism and a means of shaping the way we read, creating “an aura around the content” and in an increasingly digital environment, the way content is framed (by publishers) is as important as ever. Although, advancements in technology have made it easier to distribute digital content, Bhaskar argues the subjective side of framing, is far more important than the distribution aspect. Publishers need to focus on finding an audience, for their content, and responding to those markets through print and/or digital framing.
“From Ancient China to the Silicon Valley, there are fundamental mechanisms that stay the same”.
One of these such mechanisms is the concept of amplification, making work more widely encountered than it would otherwise have been. “Publishing equals framing plus amplification”. That doesn’t mean that amplification is easy or cheap. All publishing models, he argues, need resources to be successful, and those resources need financial support. Publishers need to find a balance between the reckless dilettante and rapacious capitalists which they are often perceived.
We move on rapidly, from the theory of digital publishing to the history. The digital network remains a pressing issue, raising a blend of financial and non-financial concerns. Bhaskar reminds us that publishing has always been at the forefront of technology, right on the cutting edge. Steam power? The use of international conglomerations? I get the feeling we’re about to start discussing what I like to describe as the "marmite" of the publishing industry - the eBook. I am not wrong.
The eBook 1.0 started out in the late 1990s, with Project Gutenberg being a prime example of the development of the digital industry. As the ‘dot com’ boom “turned to bust” in the latter part of the decade, Bhaskar suggests that it seemed to be “business as usual” for the publishing industry. It wasn’t until the record industry began facing huge losses at the hands of the internet company Napster that publishers began to take notice. Waterstones' affiliation with Sony eReaders demonstrated the advances in digital publishing. It became evident very quickly that the West Coast technology giants - Amazon, Apple and Google - had the scale, investment and ambition to reach more people than book publishers could possibly reach, creating the digital publishing landscape we see today.
There is a lot of discussion within the publishing industry about the future of the book, and the extent to which digital publishing will supersede the physical product. Michael Bhaskar’s lecture highlighted how the publishing industry will continue to mould itself to technological changes in the way it has for centuries. We leave the lecture with the realisation that while the framing of content can and potentially will change, as publishers, the focus should be on ensuring the content still fits to the needs of the end-user.
About the author of this article
Hannah Bright is a MA Publishing student, and a part-time bookseller at Waterstones. You can contact her at @hannahlbright29 or check out her book-related blog at www.allthingsbrightandbookiful.wordpress.com
Last edited: 24 10 2014