Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Publishing 101: Questions from a student

A student of publishing in the UK asked me for answers to the following questions. Other students of Publishing 101 courses may find them useful, so I've posted them here:

Do you think the use of digital media will have a positive effect on the publishing industry? Please give your reasons?

Yes, it certainly will, mainly because it will ensure its survival. Publishing as a business will dwindle and possibly die unless it embraces all the opportunities that the new digital age creates.

Ebooks are now a fact of everyday life in the industry, particularly for fiction. Most experts are forecasting that they’ll account for at least 50% of total fiction and narrative (non-illustrated) non-fiction revenues within the next few years. They are close to 30%, at least in the US, today.

The shift to ebooks of illustrated titles (cookery, travel, children’s, etc) is still at an early stage of development but a number of new software systems and packages are coming onto the market that are helping overcome the burdensome and expensive production process. Many publishers believe that the real digital revolution will not come to maturity until these sorts of titles are commonplace. That could take another five to ten years.

How do you think digital books and journals will affect education?

They are currently revolutionising the industry, and will continue to. Traditional textbook publishers have begun releasing fully digital versions of their content that incorporate elements that only digital can provide – for example, online assessment, online tutorial, customisation, classroom management tools and communication. School and university administrations are welcoming these innovations as they add real value to their offerings and save teacher and administration time. To compete with free online resources (MOOCs), for one thing, publishers will need to offer extensive administrative services as well as content.

The large educational publishers have begun negotiating with university administrations to allow their content to be accessed by students via the universities’ own Learning Management Systems (LMS), and for an annual license fee payable directly by each university. This is a very different business model than the current, print-based, student purchase one. But it is not one that is foreign to publishers. Scholarly (journal) publishers in particular have been doing business this way for years. So it will be simply a matter of moving it from the library’s interface to the LMS. (‘Simply’ being too simple a word! The transition will be lumpy and difficult).

This model has decided advantages for publishers however. It’s calculated on the basis of 100% of enrolled student participation, eliminates returns, cuts out the second hand market, and cuts out any involvement by booksellers in the supply chain, thus saving considerable cost. The ultimate price to the student can thus be reduced. Any fee charged the student by the university to recover the cost of their license would be much lower than the average student’s current annual printed textbook cost. (Equity issues arise here however. Some jurisdictions, Australia for example, do not allow the purchase by students of commercial learning resources to be mandated).

It is early days yet for these sorts of licenses, but most publishers can see that the license model is the future.

Journal publishers are of course well and truly ahead of all other industry sectors in their transition to the digital environment. They have virtually completed it, and are now in the throes of finessing their digital platforms, for example by developing comprehensive usage data that can allow university libraries to refine their subscriptions. They are also developing data mining functionality, allowing academics to drill down into the huge volumes of research data and discover connections, etc. This is a rapidly growing field.

Do you think it will have different effects in secondary school and primary school education?

Most school publishers, particularly secondary, are publishing digital offerings now. The larger publishers, who have more financial and technical resources, are paving the way. The nature of their offerings however is paralleling what’s being done in the tertiary textbook sector. Online assessment and tutorial are critically important dimensions.

The need to include interactivity, illustrated and full colour material (photos, line drawings, tables, charts, graphs, etc) and video material, is slowing down the roll-out of digital resources that are the core component of the package and not just an optional and limited added extra to a printed text. The production of these resources is very expensive, and skilled, technical staff need to be hired.

As in the university sector new business models based on licensing, whether school by school or regionally, need to be negotiated. This is all pretty unfamiliar territory for publishers and educational authorities, but it seems inevitable that it’s the way of the future.

 What do you think are the positives and negatives of ebooks against printed ones?

Much of my answer to this question is contained in my comments above. However as a general statement I would say that moving online brings all the advantages that the internet brings to modern life. We simply can’t imagine life without search engines, web sites, online commerce, social media, etc. Likewise students in ten years time would not possibly be able to imagine engaging with published educational content at recognised educational institutions without the rich interactivity that learning involves.

Similarly, general consumers in the trade market are very quickly embracing e-readers, whether dedicated e-ink devices or all-purpose tablets. The widespread acceptance of these devices guarantees a substantial market for ebooks in the future.

Negatives? Digital Rights Management (DRM) for a start! The restrictions placed on lending to family and friends, and borrowing from libraries; the non-interoperability of ebooks across the various e-readers, which restricts a purchaser to one particular eco-system, e.g. Amazon’s Kindle; the fact that purchasers don’t really own their ebooks as they do physical books, but ‘license’ them; the territorial rights deals that prohibit a purchaser from buying outside the designated territory, unlike for physical books.

Many publishers lament the low prices for ebooks, and the fact that the ‘Agency’ model of supply has been outlawed, at least for two years, by the US Department of Justice, thus removing pricing control from publishers. I don’t share this view. The agency model is anti-consumer and was only ever about inhibiting Amazon. Because of the DRM restrictions ebooks are not worth anywhere near the price of the original printed edition, and publishers ought to allow actual consumer behaviour, mediated by independent retailers, to establish acceptable pricing benchmarks.

Do you think the print publishing industry will eventually be gone or will it always exist alongside digital publishing?

Printed books will survive but certainly not be published for every title as a matter of course. And those that are printed, apart from bestsellers, will only be on the market for a short period of time – maybe a year or two. The ebook version will continue and be the only one available for years afterwards. Simple economics will govern this.

The aesthetically beautiful books will always be published in print editions, but fiction and narrative non-fiction titles, particularly those with niche, specialist markets, will increasingly be available only in ebook format.

One major issue governing the publishing and availability of print books will be the demise of the bricks and mortar bookseller, an entity that plays a critically important role in book marketing and merchandising. As booksellers become more rare, so do shelf space, display and the possibility for browsing and impulse buying.

How do you think the digital publishing age will affect libraries? Will libraries still exist?

Libraries will continue long into the future to play a vital social role in the community. Publishers who are at present refusing to supply ebooks to libraries, or who are supplying in very restrictive ways – higher prices, limited lending periods and volumes, limited catalogues (for example, backlist only) – are making a major mistake.

Libraries serve the information, study and entertainment needs of large segments of society that cannot afford to purchase all that they may like to, or, like students, need access to voluminous amounts of information. It does no good to deny people access to published content just because of their financial or occupational circumstances. ‘Cannibalisation’ is not a concept that makes any sense here.

As well, patrons who discover authors through their library will often purchase further works from that author through normal commercial channels. The library therefore is a prime marketing vehicle for publishers, and will become even more important the more bookseller shelf space dwindles in the future.