Tuesday 3 February 2015

Slow Publishing

I was reading something about the Slow Food movement. (There is also Slow Fashion, Slow Travel, Slow Photography, Slow Science, etc.) And then I heard Emma Barnes, who set up Snow Books, give a talk about Bibliocloud, a software program for publishers. I’ve heard her before; she is brilliant, and funny and wise. Most of the bigger publishers work off some kind of similar program, usually customised: a database, ever-expanding, in which you input basic information and can then spin off a whole lot else: sales reports, advance information sheets, catalogues, royalty statements, print orders. There was one at Faber, where I worked (back-room) for 14 years (until 2005); in the last year or so of that era, much of my time was spent tangling with this thing.

We’ve known for decades now that ‘labour-saving’ devices do not actually deliver the promised freedom to do with your time what you really want to do with it: read, write, edit, sleep. John Maynard Keynes believed in 1930 that his generation’s grandchildren, us, would be working just 3 hours a day, and often out of choice rather than necessity. That’s not how it has worked out. We are ever more time-poor. Here is a link to a long piece in The Economist on this, published just before Christmas.

It occurred to me, while listening to Emma Barnes, that much of what I do consists of Slow Publishing. I don’t actually want to spin off things by pressing a button, because I enjoy designing each book, cover, advance information sheet, catalogue, from pretty well scratch. I also enjoy dealing with no more than four or five authors per year. I enjoy collecting the printed books in person and talking to the man who prints them (over the years, his divorce, custody battle, remarriage, new family); I enjoy taking the books over – by Overgound if just a couple of boxes, by car if more – to the distributor’s warehouse, and being told off by Fred if the boxes are too big for his shelves, and gossip and tea with Bill. I enjoy writing numbers in columns in ledgers bought from stationery shops, and putting books in envelopes, and writing address labels by hand, and going to the post office, queuing, and talking to the family who run it (25-year certificate on the wall) about local news, their children, what's happening to Royal Mail.

The boxes could be couriered, of course. I could go with another distributor who is also a printer, and who would reprint automatically when stock gets down to x, with a print run calculated from previous months’ sales (we would email, I guess). I could do ebooks. I could learn how to make a spreadsheet. None of this has much appeal. I suspect that any gains in efficiency would be offset by losses in other things.

In some aspects of their work – not all – many small presses, perhaps, engage in Slow Publishing. It’s not actually a movement; it’s more an attitude. It comes from taking pleasure in books.

No comments: