21 May 08 | Chad W. Post

Over the past week at The Digitalist — a blog by the digital team at Pan Macmillan — Sara Lloyd has been serializing her forthcoming Library Trends article on “how traditional publishers need to position themselves in the changing media flows of a networked era.”

Taken as a whole, this is a really fascinating essay about the evolution of publishing in our digital age.

Part one is basically an overview of the situation, pointing out that publishers have always been slow to change, and have functioned in a strict, linear fashion in selecting, producing, and distributing books. According to Lloyd this is changing, both in terms of distribution, and the very nature of a “book” as end-product:

Publishers – and, importantly, authors – will need increasingly to accept huge cultural and social and economic and educational changes and to respond to these in a positive and creative way. We will need to think much less about products and much more about content; we will need to think of ‘the book’ as a core or base structure but perhaps one with more porous edges than it has had before. We will need to work out how to position the book at the centre of a network rather than how to distribute it to the end of a chain. We will need to recognise that readers are also writers and opinion formers and that those operate online within and across networks. We will need to understand that parts of books reference parts of other books and that now the network of meaning can be woven together digitally in a very real way, between content published and hosted by entirely separate entities. Perhaps most radically, we will have to consider whether a primary focus on text is enough in a world of multimedia mash-ups. In other words, publishers will need to think entirely differently about the very nature of the book and, in parallel, about how to market and sell those ‘books’ in the context of a wired world. Crucially, we will need to work out how we can add value as publishers within a circular, networked environment.

One of the key perception shifts that publishers need to make, then, is about the book as ‘product’. Whilst the book continues to be viewed as a definable object within covers, as a singular ‘unit’, publishers will continue to limit their role in its production and distribution, and this is a sure fire way for publishers to write themselves out of the future of content creation and dissemination.

The second part is more about eBooks and the way in which the future involves “ ‘connectivity’ between our differing modes of reading.”

Publishers need to provide the tools of interaction and communication around book content and to be active within the digital spaces in which readers can discuss and interact with their content. It will no doubt become standard for digital texts to provide messaging and commenting functions alongside the core text, to enable readers to connect with other readers of the same text and to open up a dialogue with them. Readers are already connecting with each other – through blogs, discussion forums, social book-marking sites, book cataloguing sites and wikis. Publishers need to be at the centre of these digital conversations, driving their development and providing the tools for readers to engage with the text and with each other if they are to remain relevant. Bob Stein at the Institute for the Future of the Book talks about “the networked book.” … the book as a place, as social software – but basically .. the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas – reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology.”

Part three focuses on the nature of the book as unit and the changes in that concept that are occurring. (I personally think that this sort of “unbundling” will be hugely important to the future of scholarly presses and books, and textbooks. Less so with fiction, although the pre-publication serialization of a novel is an intriguing concept.)

Online science fiction publisher Baen Books’ webscriptions offering puts a value on material pre-publication and demonstrates a successful, early move from unitary distribution and pricing to a flexible, subscription offering. This web based re-creation of the serialized novel using Science Fiction published by Baen Books offers novels published in three segments, one month apart, beginning three months before the actual publication date. Each month four books are made available for $15 per month. About two weeks after the last quarter is delivered, print versions of the books become available in bookshops.

The fourth part brings up an interesting point about eBooks and eReading devices—why are we so focused on downloading when a search and view online model is cleaner and more in line with how we function as readers these days?

Google and Apple, between them already have the solution for eBooks (and it’s not a download solution). Read and search on your iPhone and access via a web browser, anything in print can be handled that way. More to the point: everything in print can be handled that way. Everything will be searched via the web, everything will be accessed via the web. Downloads are pretty much of an irrelevance. The question is: what do authors and publishers plan to do about that?

The fifth section is all about the future irrelevance of publishers if writers can directly reach their readership.

Publishers need to work quickly to define what the quintessence of publishing is, what the core value provided by the publisher is beyond the technicalities of matching content with readers. When pressed to think about this, much of what publishers have to offer beyond the technicalities is qualitative rather than quantitative: stewardship, consultancy, an imprimatur. Will authors continue to value these things enough to believe that publishers are critical to the publication of their works? An interesting question is that of scale. Should publishers be joining forces to create multi-publisher platforms, to dominate content networks by developing critical mass across content types and ensuring that content is interlinked in the most valuable and rich ways? If that is the case then publishers are probably mistaken in handing off this role to Google. In its current form, Google Book Search is already providing the access key to multi-publisher book content. It is, in effect, creating the online book platform. It does little to interlink the various texts but that would be a logical next step. Any publisher which continues to regard Google as a benign partner helping to bring their valuable content to light on the Internet has their head firmly buried in the sand, but in the Internet space, publishers attempting to stand up to Google is a little like a small shoal of fish attempting to push back a tidal wave.

Part six is basically a summing up in which Lloyd makes some statements about what publishers must do to adapt and survive.

Whilst Google has led the drive to make book content ‘discoverable’ online, publishers have been slow to harness web techniques to promote and sell books, both in print and in digital formats. Many, many publishers are still nowhere near even managing the basics, of systematically creating and storing and ‘seeding’ sample chapters, excerpts, audio or video author interviews, schedules of author appearances, links to media coverage, featured material on social networking sites and rich bibliographic material.

I don’t agree completely with her points, but this is a really interesting look at the future of publishing. And I do definitely agree that publishers are generally slow (and loathe) to change, and that technology-wise, we seem to be living in the dark ages, incapable of really utilizing current digital advances to cultivate a readership and sell books.


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