Back to school: On the march of technology

I was recently asked to do some online tutoring for the WhitireiaDiploma in Publishing, in the electronic publishing course modules.

Back in the day this was a certificate course, which I did in 1995. My job’s not hard but it is challenging: the students have a topic to discuss then I’m supposed to come in at the end of the week and sum up their excellent thoughts and dispense pearls of wisdom. In the absence of any pearls I’ve been treating myself to some diversions on publishing.

Here’s the first and others may follow.

The march of technology

I’m sorry to be late to reply but I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts and it’s got me having to think hard. This isn’t so much a round-up of what you’ve been posting as some responses and a few more avenues to explore.

First up I though the definitions you all found were a great mix. Interesting to see a number focussed on the delivery mechanism that got the content to the human reader. Made me wonder whether electronic publishing is about the entire process and the product, or if it’s a mix and match? Some of the definitions suggest the end result of epublishing must be electronic, but what about print-on-demand? It’s an electronic process that generates a print book. Or a system that delivers electronic summaries with links to buy a print book? It’s part e and part p!

The quote from Digital Publishing is pretty much on the money where it talks about a variety of things that epublishing can be, and even Unesco keeps the definition pretty open. But saying it can be anything makes things pretty hard for your old-fashioned publisher trying to get their head around it.

The book is a concept that publishers understand; it can be unitised and monetised easily. Readers like books too; they’re familiar and understandable, you know what you’ve bought, you can see it. Publishers can deliver that. But readers like other things too; magazines, television, games, news, answers, opinions; these are things that are harder for publishers to package and sell.

Publishers have the content and they have the expertise to create great content, but often that expertise is around creating books, a finite and complete ‘thing’. Electronic information doesn’t quite behave like that; it’s not contained or shaped to fit a package; it spills out of packets and into other websites, it links evrywhere, it can’t contain the reader. And the reader likes that, they want to look up a word, get distracted, wander off, remember where they were, and dip back in again. That’s not to say they won’t do that with a book, but that’s book behaviour. Does book behaviour translate to media that are designed for wandering from source to source? Or does the content need to fit different shapes, shapes that might change from day to day and reader to reader?

I feel the need to defend the old school of publishers a little. (I’m half-way between young and old and a libran to boot so can see both sides.) Krozier ends by encouraging publishers to invest in R&D. Great idea, but even for large and seemingly profitable multinationals, publishing is a marginal business. There’s not much to be made from book publishing. Finding money to invest in electronic publishing once the print book’s been produced is tricky even for big publishers; smaller publishers just won’t do it if it threatens margins and editorial, production and marketing costs. And it might even argue for some publishers to stick with print books if that’s what they’re really good at.

Eveyone picked up on the other side of that equation in the blog: technology companies are challenging publishers in their traditional sphere. So publishers have two threats: their own lack of R&D and the size of technology companies’ R&D budgets. Maybe publishers need to go the other way and partner with technology compaines; publishers have the content, techs have the mechanisms. (Some publishers used to run their own printing presses and got out of that business; why not let someone else do the technology this time round?)

Someone touched on sustainability, and the economics of buying eReaders. Public libraries have existed for decades to give access to books to those who can’t afford them; it’s a valuable public service. How will that change as books go online? And is there an environmental sustainability issue? People assume the saving in paper manufacturing easily offsets electronic delivery, but huge resources are now going into running server farms and manufacturing disposable computers, cellphones, eReaders, not to mention the batteries and power to run them. (Watch this film if you’re interested in a ‘beautiful’ illustration of what’s happening in China to support tech booms: Manufactured Landscapes.)

The point that the blog was short on specifics is worth noting. Copyright and DRM aren’t discussed in detail and yet are two of the issues that publishers and the creators they represent are really going to have to address. How isn’t easy, but holding onto traditional forms of copyright protection and territorial sales channels is going to require investment that could be going into creating new types of publishing.

The conceptual change from publishing a book as a unit, where an idea is developed over the course of the book, to publishing information that can be treated as data and be re-used in smaller chunks, that can interact with other bits of information, is a huge conceptual leap for a lot of publishers. And it’s maybe one that many can’t make. But the ones that can make the jump can start repackaging the information they already possess, partner with tech providers to develop and deliver content in new ways, and then apply the lessons of redeployed content to generating new forms of content.

  1. There's an aspect of this debate that I don't think gets commented on enough, but it's nicely highlighted in the last paragraph there. We're used to thinking of the contents of books as knowledge, whereas we describe the contents of electronic publishing as information or data. But data in and of itself is quite useless really, and we don't need more information, either – we need to be better informed. That's why I think that it would be useful conceptually to make more conscious use of the world knowledge in the digital domain. It might change how we think of the whole enterprise.

  2. I really like your point, Giovanni, that "data in and of itself is quite useless really, and we don't need more information, either – we need to be better informed." We're facing a deluge of data and need all the help we can get to make sense of it.

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