Reading Time: 3 minutes

Only John Dove could fit not one, but three main topics in a presentation timed at six minutes and 40 seconds (at the Charleston Conference, 2013). I’ll just look at one of those topics, learning about the profession of publishing. John glowingly refers to a book called The Literature of the Book:

First, is a little book that I came across at the S.H.A.R.P. conference in Oxford Brookes University. The “Literature of the Book” is published by the journal, Logos. It is a perfect learner’s guide to what I call the “metabooks,” or books about books. It has an annotated bibliography of the classics in each of about 20 disciplines that are represented in this conference.

This book has been my study guide for the past few years on subjects like the business of publishing, reference, licensing, e-books, libraries, and librarianship, and it has a table called the “Matrix of the Book” which lists the core disciplines that are needed in each of our professions.

That’s quite an endorsement! I couldn’t help getting hold of a copy. Is it the classic learner’s guide? After all, as John Dove says, “we must master these skills; reading the classics of our disciplines prepares us to look out for trends and game changers.”

Well, of course, it is out of date. It was published in 2003 – not that the book itself gives you anything as useful as a date of publication. This is the first shock of the book, that it doesn’t follow the rules of publishing. To omit the date of publication is unforgiveable. There is no index, so for all I know many books may have been recommended more than once. If the work were available in digital form, I could at least search for author names to answer that question! The bibliographic references do not follow the same style throughout

The matrix of publishing (shown above) shows a very rosy picture of publishing, and reveals another key point about this book: it is by optimistic insiders (“who we are”, “what we do”). The term “competition” probably doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. Call me a curmudgeon if you wish, but my experience of publishing is all about getting people to buy your book when they could buy 25 other titles. Quite possibly those other titles are better, but you didn’t publish them. Does this principle appear on the matrix of publishing? No, it doesn’t. Publishers, according to the chart, are responsible for “catalysis (whatever that means), decision, coordination and publication”. If you read this book uncritically, you will feel that publishing is one big happy family where we all more or less agree. The book lists read as if a result of, as the two compilers state, “examining our personal collections of several hundred books each.”

What the compilers mean by publishing is by no means all of publishing. The vast forces of academic and professional publishing are almost entirely ignored in this survey. By “publishing”, they largely mean publishing fiction and non-fiction for general readers, although there are some references to other types of publishing.

I cannot complain too much about a compilation published in 2003 not being so aware of digital publishing, but I did not expect the tone of contempt by Michael Gorman in his paragraph on “The Digital Library”: 

Fantasists, “information scientists”, and other technophiles who believe that, for the first time in human history, one means of communication will obliterate all others are convinced that real libraries … will in the near future, yield to networks of electronic databases containing all needed recorded knowledge and information. I do not share this strange belief. 

Mr Gorman’s rhetorical trick here is to bracket a group, the “technophiles” and then assign to them a belief that they certainly do not share en masse: that one means of communication will replace physical libraries. But by making the claim, he can now refute it as foolish, and we are inclined to agree. I can’t help thinking of the university librarians now starting to remove the print back copies of academic journals as they are incomplete, and far less convenient to access than the digital versions. Much to Mr Gorman’s horror, no doubt. But that’s not the kind of publishing this book is about. 

There is even a section on book collecting, as if the numbers of books you own is somehow meaningful. While book collecting is of interest to some of the contributors, I think it has a questionable relevance to publishing. 

Is there a list of classic books about publishing? I’d like to think there could be. I’ll ponder this one and come back to it in a future post.  But I would think carefully before recommending titles from this compilation.