A useful way of explaining what a publisher does and thus understanding the complexity of a living sector making its way through a perennial crisis, is the definition given by one of the fathers of publishing in Italy, Valentino Bompiani: “The editor’s job is to capture words and make them ready and accessible. The most valuable words will endure and survive, and the choice is not a matter of money and power“.
The publisher is neither an author, nor a printer, nor even less a bookseller. To paraphrase a legendary quip attributed to Arnoldo Mondadori, the publisher is the one who does everything else. And all the rest, before and after a book, is mediation, listening, exploration, looking at the past and straining towards the future, a bit like Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus with which Walter Benjamin explained modernity. A wind pushes him forward, yet his eyes do not detach themselves from history, to preserve the sacredness of an object, the book in fact, which has existed and survived in its original form for nearly six hundred years.
Today, publishing is little talked about, and not only in our country. It may be useful, then, to understand what is changing in this world and what will change again tomorrow, whether and how digitisation is affecting the market and what skills are essential to succeed in dealing with all this wonderful ‘rest’ that grabs words, shapes them and, finally, liberates them. This not so simple task is nevertheless rendered simple in PHYD‘s talk “Le nuove professioni dell’editoria” (The new publishing professions), in which Nicola Comelli, project content manager, interviews Joshua Volpara, managing director and co-founder of the Ayros publishing house, which deals with business, work and management.
The story of a publishing house born from crisis
Ayros, which in ancient proto-Greek means “gold”, but also “to burn, to shine”, was founded in 2020 by Volpara and Pietro Catania, an expert in organisational development. The challenge is to find ayros in a world turned upside down by the pandemic so that entrepreneurs, managers and professionals who want to continue to learn and understand valuable tools that can help them unravel the complexities of our new reality. These tools are, in fact, books.
The publisher’s manifesto states: “We believe in the endurance and centrality of books, a unique synthesis of product and meaning, as a winning format for embarking on profound knowledge journeys capable of generating impact. We also want to ‘open up’ books so that their content can be understood, internalised and then reappear in your conversations“.
Is it madness or a precise plan to found a new publishing house in the midst of a health emergency, ignoring the difficulties of the sector, the shattering of bookshops, the process of disintermediation which, if it has not made the term publishing completely obsolete, has certainly made it ubiquitous? Volpara believes that it is precisely in an era of volatility and uncertainty that enlightened action must be taken, approaching change, in time and form, in order to somehow master it.
The world of work, in particular, has undergone the most radical changes, so companies and their employees need new coordinates and practical knowledge.
“The telluric shock of the pandemic has to some extent de-professionalised management issues, because we have all started to question what hybrid work is and how it works. In Ayros, we reasoned about formats, about how to dismantle and disseminate the book object, while preserving its symbolic value and power. Hence the idea of creating a lightweight corporate object that allows us to experiment“.
Building a publishing house: the right skills
The tension between the old and the new also emerges in the skill set required to work as an editor. There is, in fact, a know-how that does not change over time and that concerns editorial and editing work, and there are skills that today’s market and an increasingly digitalised ecosystem require, ‘harder’ skills, including, Data Analysis. Knowing how to read the data and information emerging from the many virtual places where the book is disseminated is indispensable today and will certainly be even more so in the future.
Above all, however, Volpara is concerned with maintaining a holistic view of the product, whatever the role within the publishing house. The true publisher is the one who is constantly listening, who, thanks to his ability to embrace the complexity of reality, is able to intercept the conversations around a book or a theme, to interact with them, to become a voice.
“Very often traditional publishers are not the voice of what they publish. Yet if you want to create a community of reference, you have to have a voice. Maybe it’s small, maybe it’s wrong, but you have to take a stand and be brave“.
And voice is built by becoming an editor of oneself, by seeking one’s own sphere of interest and expertise, by living the communities we feel we belong to, outside and inside the web or social platforms.
The future of the sector (and of Ayros)
Today, more and more publishers are choosing to speak to a narrow niche, to work on vertical content for a knowledgeable and competent audience. In the near future, therefore, one wonders whether generalist publishing is not in danger of extinction. However, Volpara is convinced that the generalist approach should not be lost, not only because publishing has always been ‘a generalist affair‘, but because any extreme specialism or verticalism is subject to rapid obsolescence. Publishing’s task is not to speak to just a few or to speak to everyone, but rather to dig deep to provide users with a synthesis of that ‘hand-to-hand with a complex thought or story‘ that only a book, in its various formats, can deliver.
Despite the desolation that lies ahead of us, even though people have timidly started reading again in the last 12 months, Joshua Volpara still sees a possible future.
“I see a future where the book as a symbolic object is the centre, but it is immersed and lives in a wider ecosystem. Content must travel fast to reach the user at the right time and in the right way“.
Anyone looking to work in this world today should be aware of this dispersion and have a broad view of the whole value chain that gives rise to a book and its subsequent reading. A publisher is the one who boldly shouts “Publishing is dead. Long live publishing!”
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