Friday, 22 May 2009

Paper or Pixel? The Challenges Facing Publishing


 

By Darren E Laws

Debate is raging over the quality and price of eBooks compared to their paper companions in certain parts of the publishing industry. Is all of this internalising actually missing the point and is this a ruse by publishers still unsure of how to deal with digital publications? There are some in the industry who think eBooks will 'blow over', that they are merely a 'passing phase', and there are others already writing the obituary of paper books.

We have witnessed the painful recognition of the music industry as it struggled for the best part of a decade over a similar question. In fact there are many industries that have been transformed with the introduction of the computer and the Internet to a global market. There are some industries though which are also failing to move quickly - or quick enough - to either recognise the impact and benefits or changes that will affect their performance or existence.

TV, radio, newspapers, movies, in fact all forms of information and entertainment mediums are having to rethink their approach and how to generate income from the opportunities that spring forth. So to some degree it is understandable that publishing is struggling to cope. Some publishers understand and are now developing platforms and content that is exciting with value added content given to the reader as a bonus, while others will never grasp what it means, other than a perceived notion that digital is a threat that will erode its long established foothold on the market.

The truth as always will lie somewhere between, with those who are brave enough to walk with the pioneers reaping the early benefit; but if for one moment you think paper books will disappear overnight you are as mistaken as those who refuse to accept the onslaught of digital technology in publishing. The love affair of the reader and a paper book will not be replaced by Kindle's, eReader's, mobile phones or whatever surprise Moore's law will throw at us, not just yet at least. Reading a book on a plane or a beach or just before bed can all be achieved with a digital device, but somehow paper has an intrinsic bond which for the foreseeable future will not be replaced. How long that foreseeable future lasts is dependent on how consumers embrace technology. I guess we already know the answer to that if we look at the recent history of technological advancement over the past twenty years.

The bookstore of the very near future will also be a digital repository holding millions of titles which could be transferred to digital devices or printed on demand, there and then in the store; but the physical contact and thrill of picking a book up and flipping through the pages as we decide whether to buy a book or not is an emotional decision. Scanning through a digital catalogue is a more clinical decision and one where choosing a title is a process that has already to some degree been made. But there are no guarantees, when I was growing up our high streets were littered with record shops selling vinyl records at first and then making the transition to cassette and CD, there was also a boom time with the introduction of home computers and software shops. Around the same time home video rental stores were popping up everywhere. We never dreamed that there would no longer be a demand for the content sold in these stores. All of these stores have virtually disappeared now.

Whether our emotional bond with the printed page remains is questionable, because there is a new generation of reader growing up who may just prefer digital delivered content, and as the transition takes place it may become a seamless period which is in tandem with the decline of high street sales. This is why bookstores will also need to provide digital services to consumers, because if they don't then it is clear that Internet bookstores are already well placed to fill the gap on all fronts.

So the challenge facing publishing is how to balance the onset of untested technology and delivery platforms in terms of consumer response and what to do if that response achieves its potential. This is quite a challenge and a very exciting time to be in publishing.

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