This is not a post written with any confidence that you’ll enjoy reading it. The topic is fuzzy, the trend unclear, and the implications difficult to grasp. It basically boils down to the increasingly apparent fact that publishing in the digital environment is an expensive, time-consuming new way to publish, despite early desires for it to be cheap, fast, and easy.
And that’s a disappointing reality.
While once thought to consist merely of “digitizing content” and derived from concepts firmly planted in the library/desktop use-case, digital media in scholarly and scientific publishing has evolved significantly as new devices have enabled new use-cases. This has forced publishers to address the use-case of the laptop, the e-reader, and the mobile device. It has also forced publishers to acknowledge more directly the concept of workflows. And, as consumer media has ratcheted up expectations with each Apple iOS or Google Android upgrade, scholarly publishers have found themselves forced to follow suit to some degree. A world of maintenance, upgrades, and software revisions has followed, with expensive expertise, significant costs, and new roles at publishing houses.
The fungibility of print is something we have yet to recreate, for print has an odd chameleon quality when it comes to use-cases. Desktop use-case? Print works. Mobile use-case? Print works. Laptop use-case? Print works. Reader use-case? Print works. No amount of X (XML, XSLT) seems to match its flexibility for reading, which is still a major activity in the research workflow, explained by the continued dominance of the PDF. At a recent meeting with scientists, one forward-thinking digital native reached out tentatively for a print journal lying on the table, picked it up, opened it, and marveled at the high-yield reading experience he found, using terms like “high throughput” and “information density” to describe the results of careful layout and typography of a print page spread. The iPad and laptop nearby couldn’t match the experience. There is a great deal of value still delivered by traditional page layout.
To achieve similar portability as users, we invest hundreds of dollars in devices. Yet we don’t acquire similar information density, or as some users term it, “high-yield” information experiences. Online information experiences are still frustratingly low-yield in many ways.
As publishers, one of the most expensive and time-consuming aspects is designing and platforming content to work across this broad set of devices, each with its own putative use-case and attempt at yield. Making each environment work in sync with the others is an even more complex process.
Mobile is currently the biggest area of expanding user preferences, so it’s no surprise that it is an expensive way to deliver content. It is also rapidly changing and full of churn. A recent article on the “Talking New Media” blog delved into the issue, quoting one unnamed publishing executive saying:
We waste more time fixing something that wasn’t broken in the first place. Worse, readers blame us when suddenly the app doesn’t work. We didn’t do anything, Apple did!
Complexity is the new normal, as all aspects of modern publishing — from authorship to editing to publishing to reading — has become more complex and involved. Reviewers have to remember scads of passwords across the multiple journals they help, and online review systems are themselves complex and intricate to learn and use. Editorial markup and workflows are more complex now. Metadata, article identifiers, feeds, downstream deliveries, and APIs all add complexity to each publishing event.
On the commercial front, monitoring subscriptions, customer data, financial data, creative materials, and marketing campaigns are activities that are orders of magnitude more complicated, time-consuming, and involved than in the past. There are some benefits to the complexity — more measurable results and some mysteries removed — but the overall system is overloaded with caution and complexity. To contemplate an advertising or marketing campaign involves not only creative work but many technical and data integrations. The scale of effort leads to caution and robs businesses of speed. There are simply not enough months in a budget year to accomplish all the marketing and advertising planned given how much time and effort each campaign takes to conceive and execute.
This complexity leads to a slower and lumpier commercial environment, one that favors bigger publishers and bundled deals. Making a purchase of any kind — for institutions or libraries, for advertisers, for aggregators, and even for individual subscribers — is now so much more complex that it’s better to get a lot for each transaction. Smaller, more frequent transactions are no longer as easy to make or even to contemplate, and justifying them is more and more difficult. Digital seems to be tilting the tables even further toward consolidation and bundled businesses.
The reality of digital publishing is proving to be quite different from the early promise. I say this as a member of the cohort that embraced it headlong in the mid-1990s and onward. The levels of complexity, the endless revision cycles, the uncertain commercial environment, the bilateral purchaser-seller costs which make transactions less frequent and more difficult, and the lingering misperception that all this can be made cheaper, faster, and easier with more technology — this is where we seem to be.
It’s a confounding position.
Where do we go from here? I’m not certain. I think an important starting point is to acknowledge that we were wrong in thinking that online or digital publishing could be cheaper and simpler than print publishing. Paper and ink were actually easier to buy and distribute than polished and well-placed pixels. Print advertising was more scalable. Print archives were easier to manage. The postal services were more consultative with publishers than Apple or Google. The ecosystem was less costly to operate within.
Once the expense and complexity is acknowledged and not pushed aside by the continuing hope that it will someday get easier, then we might be able to bring ourselves to say “No” to some trends, to find our proper technology solutions, and to stop chasing the upgrade monkey.
I think that’s all I have for this release of thoughts. As some future date uncertain, I’ll return with an upgrade. After all, that’s how the world works now.