2 Introduction: Catching up with technology

Liam Borgstrom (ed.)

Despite the fact that there is evidence that shows that people are reading less and spending their time doing other things, it is remarkable that more books are being published today than ever before. New technology, as one of the biggest influencing factors, might be diverting our attention away from reading, but it is definitely making it easier to write and publish material – whether online or in print form. There are now many new and different ways for authors to publish their work without reverting to publishers whom might reject them. E-books and print-on-demand, for example, are notable promoters of a booming self-publishing phenomenon.

Evidently, this means that everything in the book trade is changing – and these changes are very much influenced by the technologies of the internet, digital printing, e-text reading devices, digital rights management, digital design tools, digital content capture, and digital archiving. All of these technologies/tools impact on the production of today’s books and book-like texts.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:1, 3)

This statement many years later still rings true. Statistics on e-books are hard to come by as while data is provided by some providers and in some countries, it is hard to gain a coherent picture. The data available suggests that in the US (led by Amazon.com) e-books supply some 30% of of the market income[1], however in South Africa reported earnings in general trade are only 4.8% (with the bulk coming from academic titles).[2]

Overall the influence of digital consumption of all media has been one of the most disruptive forces of our generation, and while it opens up an exciting number of possibilities, it also presents just as many challenges.

Distinguishing features of digital publications

Digital publications are able to existent outside of their physical carriers and therefore we can say that:

  1. Supplementary content can be provided
    • In the form of similar or alternate media which can be with the publication or hosted on-line.
    • This can include anything from extracts from references to video and audio content.
  2. Content is disaggregated
    • Modern journals are only arranged in volumes for reference, the articles are available as independent entities.
    • In the same stream, we read blogs and news articles as independent posts, and have them linked to others through various (even customisable) means.
  3. Content collation and re-assembly
    • Any number of sources can be recombined into a new form.
    • A single document (piece of information) can be experienced in multiple containers, such reading an e-book on an e-reader, and then one’s phone, only to share a passage with a friend via a computer.
  4. Users are involved in the process
    • Marketing becomes easier when the feedback channels are open. Amazon.com has made good work of this by allowing people to post reviews of products. As a result, they do some of the sales pitch on behalf of the publisher.
    • This is true in all areas of innovation, as any on-line involvement is easy and cheap, publications can include user commentary as they are updated.
  5. Authors are increasingly able to self-publish
    • While it still requires an understanding of the business, it is possible, for low-cost, for an aspiring author to make themselves known and sell material simply by communicating through the right, digital channels.

The digital revolution: a wave of innovation

The digital revolution has broadly affected the way printed publications are produced; the comforting paper book we read in bed or at the beach was most likely created with word-processing software on the author’s computer, the pages were most likely typeset digitally, it could have been transmitted digitally (e-mailed) halfway around the world and back again, and it may even have been printed digitally. In other words, most of the pre-press processes leading up to the ink transferring (from the plate) to paper could be considered digital in some or other way.

It would then seem that virtually all publishing is digital to some extent – irrespective of whether content is delivered in an electronic or print format – but, different publishers/content generators have adopted (or are in the process of adopting) different approaches in the generation/digitalisation of content.

  • Academic publishing levers digital distribution in order better access scholars around the world, and integrates itself with university content delivery systems while still delivering paper books.
  • Magazines as well as the advertising and packaging industry have greatly advanced digital production and layout technology. Magazines especially have adopted app-based delivery and developed new means for reader engagement.
  • Newspapers have migrated to integrated digital workflow systems for print and digital publishing with a stronger focus on retaining subscribers, and delivering multimedia content.
  • Books exist in a fluid state between print and digital formats depending on the nature of the title and the intended audience.

This ‘wave of innovation’, however, is not centred on a single technology, but a mix of technologies ranging from print-on-demand and the internet, to e-book reading software and hardware display technology. These technologies do different things and do them in different ways, but they all have a common logic: digitalisation. It is this common logic that ties these divergent technologies together in an (expectantly) easier, quicker and cheaper way of making books. Consequently, this may not only expand the market for books, but could also increase their cultural impact.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:2)

The digital revolution takes various forms and is proceeding at various paces for the various kinds of publishers. The concerns of trade book publishers, for instance, are very different from those of textbook publishers, and likewise it is very different in the context of magazines as compared to scholarly journals. But most of all, the digital revolution gives us an ever-expanding wealth of alternatives, and opened up a virtually unlimited future in terms of the publication of content. Nonetheless, it is important to note that today’s familiar print media (books, magazines, and newspapers) are not obsolete; the electronic medium does not necessarily replace the traditional medium, but in most cases it supplements print formats and enables us to publish content in new and remarkable ways.

(Kasdorf, 2003:3)

In fact, new data from the 2013-2015 sales period indicates that ebook sales are stabilising, if not tapering off when compared to previous year’s increases and the increased sales of print books. Niel Irvin [3]accounts this drastic change in ebook sales to the stabilisation of the market and marketplace.[4]

Understanding and interpreting digital trends, requires an understanding of peoples attachment to media.

The core of the digital revolution

It is interesting to note that much of the on-screen rendering of text and images is based on systems of preservation derived from the book – elements such as pages of text, headings, systems for listing contents (buttons and menus), referencing (links), cross-referencing (hypertext), and indexing (searching facilities) are still very much evident in the electronic/digital environment. The difference is that the electronic document consists of computer data, other than programs or system files, which is intended to be used in a computerised form; from there it can then be stored electronically or can be printed. Hence, we can say that electronic documents are made up of a number of electronic pages, each of which consists of its own set of data.

Moreover, the distribution of documents in an electronic format has become much more convenient and improvements in display technologies are making it more likely for people to read on-screen and enjoy it. This also has the advantage of saving paper and storage space.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:5)

The most fundamental realisation of the digital revolution, however, is that published content is independent of the physical products that convey it to us: a book or article is not inextricably bound to the paper on which we read it. Consequently, there are two critical outcomes to this:

  1.  there are many new things to publish; and
  2.  there are many new ways to publish them.

Thus, we can say that within the digital environment/era we are largely liberated from the page. We are no longer limited to what can be printed in ink on paper, and we are no longer constrained by what can be manufactured, inventoried, sold and distributed efficiently (or economically) in a physical form:

  • we can now include colour images where once we could only afford black and white ones;
  • we can publish work too big or too small to be accommodated by traditional print media;
  • we can include multimedia content to enhance our publications (audio clips, videos, animation, interactive graphics and assessments etc.);
  • we can provide supporting data or executable software that not only supports our content, but stimulates the creation of more; and
  • we can link our publications to other similar publications.

(Kasdorf, 2003: 2-3)

This all considered, we must now begin to think of the ways in which the common platform of digitalisation will integrate new technologies for printing, the internet and other electronic publishing formats into a single publishing system – one which is easier to access, and in some respects rather enhance than displace traditional publishing systems. This realisation of a single publishing system extends to the notion that all future outset formats (print/electronic) might originate from the same (digital) process – the option being to decide in which final format the content will be published.

(Cope & Phillips, 2006:3)

For publishers, digital publishing offers some very real appeals:

(a) the ease and usefulness of access to information it creates (through extra functions such as searching); and

(b) the relative savings in terms of time and money it provides (opposed to information carrying paper, print and distribution costs).

  • However, storing digital content requires the use of server computers, which have to be maintained and so come with their own costs.
  • Users are required to make a bigger investment – in terms of hardware, software, and supporting periphery including paper.
  • Coding processes must be integrated into the production phase (this may require an extra person).
  • The origination costs are still the same, and publishers must invest in producing good material.
  • Sometimes the material can be more costly, if perhaps actors and camera operators are required. The more media you add, the more the more costs increase. This includes printed supporting documentation.
  • Hence we refer to “relative affordability”, as electronic distribution can, but not necessarily always, be more affordable than physical (print) alternatives.

It is these aspects that make digital publishing a very attractive enterprise – especially in the academic environment where research can become dated very quickly before it actually gets published. Because of the ease of access, currency and relative affordability of electronic information, the dissemination of content in some or other digital format will most likely be positively received within the digital era.

(De Wet, 2003:303)

  1. Author Earnings Report 2014
  2. Taken from the PASA 2013 Annula Industry Survey
  3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/08/08/e-book-sales-are-leveling-off-heres-why/
  4. You can read more on this here on the Rough Type Blog


Publishing in the Digital Environment Copyright © 2013 by Liam Borgstrom (ed.). All Rights Reserved.