The future of control

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A revolution in publishing means companies will have to learn to relinquish control

Imagine my surprise last week when I walked into a bookshop on Sauchiehall Street and saw a librarian from the British Library counting the books on the shelves.

I watched him for a moment as he walked alongside the books on medieval history. He had a clipboard heavy with printed paper. For each book he came across he cross-referenced it with a list on his clipboard. After a while I realised that when he discovered a book that wasn’t on his list he would take a copy off the shelf and put it in his basket.

Curious, I went over to speak to him. His name badge had ‘British Library’ proudly splashed across the top and ‘Gordon, librarian’ underneath, in much smaller letters. I asked him what he was doing.

He told me the British Library was legally obliged to store at least one copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. I asked what that had to do with cross-referencing books in a branch of Waterstone’s in Glasgow.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ he spluttered. ‘I’m looking for books we don’t have. If there’s a book on these shelves I haven’t seen before, I take a copy for the British Library.’

He explained how the system works: the British Library sends its staff out into the world to find the country’s bookshops. How they find them is a bit haphazard, but they’ve found it works to ask in one bookshop how to get to the next. In each bookshop they find they look at the books it stocks. For those they do have, they make sure they have the latest edition; for those they don’t, they take a copy.

Reductio ad absurdum

If this seems an absurd way of looking after our cultural heritage you’d be right. I’ve just made it all up. It would, of course, be ridiculous for the British Library to go into each and every bookshop looking for unknown books. In fact there’s a legal obligation for publishers to send a copy of each newly published book to the Legal Deposit Office within the library.

I’m glad the British Library is sensible about this. It makes me happy to know the written works of our nation, and all the knowledge they contain, are taken so very seriously and have a strong legal backing.

But it doesn’t happen on the web. It can’t happen on the web. Could you imagine parliament drafting a bill stating every author must send a copy of their web site to the British Library? It would become the very embodiment of an unenforceable law.


In fact, the opposite has happened. The state no longer has anything like the control, benevolent or otherwise, it used to have over the printed word. The relationship has flipped. Whereas once the British Library could demand a publisher send it a copy of every edition of a book the library now has to go looking for its copies. The Internet Archive has been doing this for 14 years, and national libraries are slowly — too slowly — coming to realise they need to start archiving the web as carefully as they do newspapers, books, magazines, and film. (Something I’ve written about before.)

This loss of control is fascinating. It’s taken thousands of years but publishing has finally made its way into the hands of us all. The pharaohs of Egypt and kings of Mesopotamia kept control thanks to the prohibitive expense of carving in stone, producing papyrus, and the rarity of education. The same thing happened in medieval Europe when monks and religious houses jealously guarded the control publishing gave them.

Now publishing is going through a revolution so profound nothing matches it since the printing press. And we’re seeing companies and people trying to control the change, just as we saw those medieval religious houses try to stop Gutenberg.

You can control physical media; you can’t control ones and zeros. When I see Warner Brothers sulkily take its music from Spotify I don’t see a company honestly preparing for the future, I see a company that’s stuck in the world before the revolution. The medieval Christian Church tried to stay in the world they knew before the printing press. That didn’t work out well and they ended up losing control of so much by staying there.

Wired have it right: they have a successful, admired magazine. But they are honest about the future, they know it won’t be there in a decade. Everything’s changing, and they need to change with it. The exploratory work they’re doing with the iPad is to be applauded. Not because of the platform, but because they’re embracing the future of publishing.

Meanwhile, we can watch Warner Brothers flail about and see how much of their precious control they have in 2020.