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The Digital Publishing Revolution Is Over

The technologist-as-trickster is a fixture of our age. Pacing the stage at a tech conference, unencumbered by notes or even the reliance on a podium, with multiple huge video screens hanging above showing the trickster in full stride (reminding the historically minded of the painted banners of Stalin and Mao), the technologist preaches to a rapt audience about the gospel of the inevitable domination of digital tools over all. “Preaching” is a good word for this, as the talk returns repeatedly to matters of meaning, of doing something useful with one’s life. This talk is not about technology, it is not about how things work — this is a presentation about the inner life of the audience. It is all about how they feel, how they can align their inner state with the technological torrent that is sweeping over them. “Do not be afraid,” he says (the technology trickster is almost always male). “Put away your fears. Embrace the empowerment of new technology.” Don’t try to assert control; go with the Force.

No industry is without its tricksters, but the media businesses and publishing in particular have seen more than their share. This is because of the inherent nature of information, which can be reduced to ones and zeroes and easily transmitted over the Internet. A company that sells snowshoes or refrigerators, on the other hand, will always have to emerge from the virtual world at some point, place a box on a truck, and ship it to your home. One might reasonably ask what fear has to do with any of this. Well, there is fear of change, of course, but the real issue here is the psychologizing of what is essentially a business issue. Unemotional business types will note that passion may get things started, but detachment is the real builder. Fear is invoked to pitch an opportunity that is vague in design and uncertain in outcome.

The trickster has more difficulty in making his case after he has already won the argument. This is the situation today, at least for the publishing industry, which now operates under revolutionary assumptions. Whereas even a couple years ago you could find people insisting that there will always be print (which is besides the point), some who praised the smell of ink on paper, others who noted all the affordances of print that digital media cannot easily replicate, today those very same people are like tories hiding under the bed. No publishing organization operates with a print-centric strategy any more, not even those whose revenues derive overwhelmingly from print, nor even those whose legal department chases down alleged pirates and whose corporate affairs staff lobbies Washington for stricter enforcement of copyright.  Print and all that comes with it (litigation, legislation) is a tactic, not a strategy, and the companies that pursue this tactic know it. There will be a bloody mess while the final vestiges of the Old Order are rooted out, but a new parliament is already convening. The digital publishing revolution is over.

It may seem strange to proclaim that the revolution is over when houses are filled with bookshelves, publishers’ creaky Web sites are hard to find and difficult to navigate, when it is not possible to purchase an e-book on one device and read it on another, and when rigid PDFs, faithfully mimicking the printed page, are passed around like currency, but this has more to do with a misunderstanding of the word “revolution”  than any backsliding among the citizenry. A revolution is not realized when all practices conform to the principles of a new order but when the principles take hold to influence and guide future actions. Even now, you can probably find monarchists hiding out somewhere in the US, but the real comedy is with the gun-toting militants who see the hand of King George in every government policy. First the revolution, then the consolidation. This is where we are now, in post-revolutionary publishing:  consolidating the alterations and innovations built on the microprocessor. What new markets will a digital text be able to reach? What is a text anyway and how can we reconfigure it to add new value to readers and authors alike?

This argument is not merely about rhetoric, however. Words matter. Indeed, this was the argument of a trickster I happened to see recently. In an entertaining but mostly uninformative presentation, the self-described futurist commented that if you can change the way people think about the future, you can change the future. This is not itself a radical idea. Outside the sanctum of a high technology conference, this is what is known as marketing; someone with a darker disposition might call it Orwellian. Activists for an ongoing publishing revolution (as distinct from those who work for consolidation) put people on the defensive rather than engage them with new projects, new plans. It’s time to send our revolutionaries home and work to build new practices on a practical foundation.

The general acceptance of the revolutionary spirit was brought home to me about a year ago in a conversation with the director of a university press. She proudly boasted that her organization now published e-books — specifically, Kindle editions with Amazon — and that she was working to get her books onto the other digital platforms. I made no comment, as there is a lot more to digital publishing than the Kindle, but she then went on. She had in her budget money to build a complete digital workflow.  Now all books would be produced in XML and the various specific formats (ePub, Mobi, PDF, etc.) would be generated at the end of the process, as market circumstances required, with print simply as one output among many. This is getting interesting. But she didn’t stop there. The move to XML, she said, was part of her strategy to maintain as flexible a program as possible so that her press could pounce on new opportunities as they appeared, as (she said) they inevitably would. So even here the head of a small academic publisher, whose revenue derived almost entirely from print and whose organization sits in the slow-moving environment of a bureaucratic research university, was endorsing the recommendations of technologists: flexibility, ongoing disruption, experimentation, and probing for new opportunities. What does the trickster have to offer her now?

What he could offer is a new way to think about the game. Instead of railing about the “fear” of piracy and the horrors of DRM, he could create models for how much money can be earned using DRM and how much can be earned without it. This is not a quick analysis to do, as revenue in a networked environment can derive from multiple, even indirect sources (you give away the bacon, but charge for the eggs).  But changing the argument — focusing on the specific economic opportunity — is all that is needed to speed up the pace of technology adoption. Given the reputation that publishers have for avarice, does anyone doubt that they would drop DRM in a minute if presented with a credible, testable model for how to make more money from it?

This program can and should go far beyond DRM, however. What is the economic value of a tweet? If social media are now a new form of currency, how many “Likes” on Facebook equal one dollar? How can the adoption of altmetrics increase the penetration of academic library markets? What is the value of file-sharing, expressed in dollars and cents, and how does that value vary over time, when mapped against different content types, and within the context of a product’s lifecycle? And while we are at it, what is “lifecycle publishing” anyway, and how do I profit from it?

We have gone beyond fomenting revolution; now it is time to provide solutions. Solutions are not technical in nature; they are not about bits and bytes, production workflows, or file formats. A solution is a business solution. Now that my organization is digital-first, what is the most profitable way to manage the legacy business, extend our market reach, and create new products? What will the landscape look like in five years and how do I lead my organization to benefit from it?

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

20 thoughts on “The Digital Publishing Revolution Is Over

  1. As someone who studies technological revolutions I agree with most of this, but I prefer the term articulation to the word consolidation. Articulating the revolution is when the big stuff happens while consolidation sounds like things are getting smaller. For example it was clear that the car was a great thing by 1900 but few had them. Mass production, highway building and car-based lifestyles all came later during the articulation phase. It is like the difference between deciding to launch a big project and actually doing the work. The digital publishing project is just getting underway.

    Posted by David Wojick | Mar 4, 2013, 8:10 am
  2. In addition to “articulation” described above, I think the next phase of online publishing is going to focus on “aggregation” of research resources. It’s not going to be enough for an article or book to stand alone in its own digital silo. If the article is going to be really useful, its publishing platform is going to harvest similar open access resources on the web to present a cache of networked information, not just a single work of scholarship.

    Posted by Pauline Saliga | Mar 4, 2013, 11:09 am
    • Aggregation of the best submitted work is what most journals already do. Thus a journal is “a cache of networked information, not just a single work of scholarship.”

      Posted by David Wojick | Mar 4, 2013, 4:39 pm
    • This began some time ago with such aggregations of journals as Project Muse. It has since added books into the aggregation, as of 2012. There are several other such aggregations of books and journals run by JSTOR, Oxford and Cambridge University Presses, etc.

      Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 4, 2013, 5:25 pm
  3. Joe
    Thank you for framing the conversation as a business solution at this point. Publishers have always adjusted to tech, often ahead of the general population. Now that sales, marketing and distribution–important factors–moved ahead, publishers and booksellers needed to catch up. Some caught more off guard then others. Some dug-in or despaired but they all got going and continually adjust including exiting the business. They know what they have to do. Presenting the tech change agent as a trickster was spot on!

    Posted by Barbara M | Mar 4, 2013, 11:14 am
  4. It seems pretty clear from what you say about the university press director that she is still thinking in terms of market-based publishing, so evidently has not really gotten to the next stage of “revolution” and asked whether some form of open access does not ultimately provide a better model long-term for university presses than continuing reliance on the market, which has been eroding for decades now.

    As for whether reliance on print is simply counter-revolutionary, it should give some pause that the growth of ebook sales has slowed considerably in the trade sector and perhaps will never reach even 50% of the market. “The AAP released their monthly StatShot report for October 2012, showing flat trade sales overall and a continued falloff in the growth of ebooks–which comprised just 17 percent of all trade revenues in the month.”

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Mar 4, 2013, 2:45 pm
  5. Great piece. I agree that the digital publishing revolution is over (over, but the shouting, that is). I think what folks are coming to realize is that the real revolution isn’t digital per se but our online life. That is, we’ve all moved to spending a huge chunk of our time inline; it’s where we socialize, get informed, and make purchases. But we’re in a “technology gap-time”: the volume of content online is growing at a nearly exponential rate while methodologies of search, smart filtering, discovery are still very primitive.

    You touched on the marketing challenge in your penultimate paragraph. Another way of saying what is the value of a Tweet is “What are the cost effective scaleable ways of connecting people to content that matters to them, perhaps even enough that they’ll pay for it?” This is the question that’s left in the wake of the revolution over eBooks and digital publishing,

    Posted by Peter Turner (@PeterTurner) | Mar 4, 2013, 5:30 pm
  6. I like the post! Still, I think it is difficult to call the end of a revolution so close to the timing of the event. At the risk of me being stoned in the kitchen for annoying futurism, I think the revolution described is a bit like thunder before rain. I agree with the notion of getting working now on solutions, but I think the rain has yet to come. Too little has simply happened in this revolution. Right now, someone, somewhere overheard the decree and is busy developing an impossible idea – again. Maybe that futurist is in fact the only one really working in the present. Maybe that is the real dilemma for publishers?

    Posted by Neil Christensen | Mar 4, 2013, 9:01 pm
  7. From Bruce Sterling’s latest book:

    http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=14575

    Go to your Futurist Congress,” said Farfalla. “They are expecting you there. Your important friends will take good care of you. Nothing will happen to you there. Nothing ever happens when important people talk about the future.

    Posted by David Crotty | Mar 5, 2013, 8:02 am
  8. The author seems to think that “giving away the bacon” is the inevitable future business model, but that is far from a foregone conclusion. Newspapers have tried that for about a decade now and where has it gotten them? It would be nice to have some actual numerical examples to back up the theory that free content will produce more revenues. Without that, it’s just a pipe dream.

    As a small digital publisher, I can attest that there are numerous ways of monetizing content. Some involve DRM, some “giving away the bacon”. Despite articles like this that purport to know better, there is no one solution for everyone.

    Posted by Jaylat | Mar 5, 2013, 10:18 am
  9. Any technological revolution is best measured in terms of how it changes economics. If the economic model (say, bundled, library-subscription based market) have not been disrupted or changed, then the revolution has not played out yet, or else are not a revolution. (This post appears to make spurious analogies to the concept of political revolution).

    Posted by Carl Boettiger (@cboettig) | Mar 5, 2013, 12:54 pm
  10. In response to: “But changing the argument — focusing on the specific economic opportunity — is all that is needed to speed up the pace of technology adoption.”

    I suggest a model that has worked well for me, re-purposing my works via micro-licensing of my digital publications. I make more per chapter now using per classroom and derivative use licenses than I ever did selling my curricula in whole. Fortunately for me, few of my competing authors have even heard of micro-licensing, let alone currently use it.

    Posted by Louise | Mar 11, 2013, 4:16 pm

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