25 Years Ago

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I have been watching with interest the debate being reported by David Worlock at Electronic Publishing Systems regarding the changing nature of the ‘book’. David has been advocating the exploitation of IT in the publishing industry for 20 years (happy birthday EPS).

This reminded me of a memo I sent to my boss, Jimmy Lee Mercer (a great mentor now sadly deceased), when I ran a subsidiary of Time-Life Books so I raided my files and found it. You may be interested in some of the things I said so I include a few extracts here.

First, the memo (I have a carbon copy, with tippex corrections) is dated 21st May 1980 when it was considered the publishing industry was in serious trouble.

There is a lot of waffle about the price pressures on the industry from increased costs of oil, paper, storage [physical] and wages, so no change there then, leading to the death of the book and short term tactics we should adopt such as concentrating on ‘named’ authors. “I’m an author, get me out of here!”

Then I look to the future:

“One of the major barriers to the development of our industry is that publishers will keep insisting that they make books. This is not true – printers and binders make books, publishers are in the information business. The medium that we use to get a manuscript from the desk of an editor to the ‘book’ shelf of the reader is irrelevant and dependent only upon what is acceptable, in terms of quality and functionalism, to both the editor and the end user. As I have said before, everything related to books is getting more and more expensive. Everything related to electronic recording, storage and retrieval is getting cheaper. The wrinkles of the new technology are being ironed out faster and faster as economics make its use more viable.”

I then suggest that newspapers will be the first to be affected as the production and distribution process takes too much time whereas “Imagine turning on a VDU and tuning into World News, local weather, sports results etc. As you were watching the screen the information would be updated – news 30 seconds old.”

I then go into some weird predictions of buying a ‘silicon chip package’ off the rack at WS Smith and plugging it into your ‘reader’ (pretty good description of an i-Pod given that it is 1980) but then go on to ‘plugging it into your headboard so you can project on the ceiling and read in bed’. Well, you never know.

I’m on a roll now suggesting that a recent book we had produced, The Music Makers – 1,000 years and 1,000 musicians, could not only include the music but “ . . . you would be able to project a hologram of Mozart sitting at a harpsichord in your lounge.” OK, so I was a teenager in the 60’s. Who know the long term effects of such an experience?

I finished off with “My fear is being ripped off by the electronics companies if we discuss it with them without some TL Inc muscle behind us.”

The response from Time-Life was “But Graham, you don’t understand. We are in the electronic publishing business, we own Home Box Office.” This is the business that later got bought by AOL.

Today, 25 years later, Google are offering publishers a low level repository, Microsoft are to digitise 25 million pages for The British Library and DPSL have a book ‘factory’ which converts text to XML so that the publisher can provide print-on demand (POD – whoops, there goes the Book Remainder business and no more ‘Out of Print’.) to the highest quality or e-books for the reader to download.

It just goes to show that a good idea is nothing if your timing is out.


2 Responses to 25 Years Ago

  1. Alfred de Simone December 19, 2005 at 2:10 pm #

    Graham, Remember me ? Glad to see your face again.
    Still look the same. Not sure if my 60 year old face is familiar. Still in the USA in Saint Charles, Illinois My address is 2803 Turnberry Road, Saint Charles, Illinois 60174 USA. Telephone number is 630 513 8817. Hope to reconnect again, Best Alfred

  2. Tim Hawkins December 28, 2005 at 11:23 am #

    Hi Graham
    I ran across your blogg by accident, I hav’nt heard from you guys in years, how are roy and peter doing?.
    I guess we have all moved on since GTG days 🙂

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