Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Why digital alone cannot “save” publishing (yet)

As the big technology giants continue to do battle for the number-one spot in the marketplace, more and more complications are emerging that are making a digital-only future seem less and less certain (at least to me, anyway). As some of the novelty of ereaders wears off and users start feeling the sort of digital burnout this article from the Huffington Post suggests, I think—or I’m hopeful, anyway—that the dust is finally starting to settle. I am hopeful that we’re beginning to find “that place” where print books and ebooks can live, work, and play together as one big happy family.

Optimistic? Maybe, and I’m not saying we’re there yet. We still have a ways to go, and considering that technology companies have the capability to change the playing field with one single mouse click, it’s impossible to get comfortable or complacent. However, I think both publishers and consumers are starting to meet at somewhat of a common ground, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles that stood to be overcome. When the digital craze broke wide open with an ereader frenzy, there was a lot of misunderstanding (and there still is, of course). But with all the controversy in the news lately, I think consumers are starting to realize that ebooks are perhaps not quite as simple as they appear.

Now, I’m not being naive, here. Digital is dumping the industry right on its head, and print sales continue to decline. Yes, digital is breathing new life into the industry and creating more options, but with the way things are right now, it’s also not going to wipe out print with one heavy backhand because it’s just too unstable right now as a whole. The rules change faster than they can be written down.

In fact, right now, diversification seems to be the best strategy. The hard part, of course, is finding the right balance between the tangible, real world experience and digital. However, it’s important to plant a lot of roots, because a variety of offerings makes for a much more stable foundation. Remember, there are endless “oh no!” situations that can take place when another company is essentially in control of your sales, marketing, and PR.

“Oh no!” situations much like oh, I don’t know, 5,000 titles getting removed from due to a dissolved contract with IPG. Author Jim Hanas, one of the aforementioned authors who found his book removed as a result, explained how damaging this can be when a book is published in ebook form only. All reviews, summary information, and other book-related material have been completely erased.

And this is only one reason why a digital-only approach may not be the best strategy; there’s far too much at stake when contract terms can be renegotiated so easily. I’m not arguing that technology companies are “bad” for publishing by any means, because there is a lot to be gained. Sales prove it. But I am saying that this is only one of many options, particularly when there are now such a small number of players holding the big cards. If the terms and conditions change, it’s important to have a plan B. Digital is only one piece of the puzzle; an important one, but not the only one. The online component is of course an inseparable part of business, no matter where you are or what you’re doing or selling. But is it everything? No, I don’t think so. Some things are better suited for online production, and some things work better in print. It may take some effort to rethink and renegotiate, sure, but I’m confident it can be done.

And hey, sometimes it seems like even the technology companies with no physical stores believe that online isn’t everything. After all, with Amazon potentially opening a store in Seattle, and Google looking to open one in Dublin, it seems that brick-and-mortar has a certain appeal as well. Who knew? While Amazon and Google won’t be stocking their shelves with measly little books when they’ve got devices to sell, this seemingly odd move underscores that some things just work better in person. Having the opportunity to view, touch, and test devices is a whole lot easier, and it is far more effective than the ship-test-return method that an online-only model would normally afford.

While these companies could, and do, sell their devices in the Best Buys, Targets, and Walmarts of the world, to open their own location with a unique, branded experience (think Apple here) is an entirely different story. Sure, right now we’re only talking about one single location for each. Is it enough to make a splash? It seems unlikely. Will it pave the way for new stores? Who knows. But it does show an interesting thought process behind all that machinery. Even the online companies that are making physical retail obsolete are exploring diverse options themselves. Will this inadvertently help those brick-and-mortar stores by, in essence, acknowledging their value? I guess we’ll have to see.

But in the meantime, what can we learn? There’s something to be said about finding the right balance between physical and digital. We can’t look to digital products alone as our main product line when battles over proprietary ebook formats leave the playing field in pure chaos. But we can’t stick our heads in the sand and ignore that they exist, either. With some experimentation, and enough roots, publishers and authors alike can gain more traction, because when it comes to technology disruptions, there’s always going to be another exciting shakeup.


This entry was posted on March 14, 2012 by in Business, Opinion and tagged , , .

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