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Publishing Technology vs Content (Yes, it is versus)

Today I dropped the "self" from the title of this blog because I find I'm writing more and more about general publishing issues, of which self publishing is a subset. But don't expect me to become a publishing technologist. I see the technology and content components of publishing as existing in opposition to each, rather than in partnership. To quote a well known former self publishing blogger of the 21st century, "Technology is the last refuge of a scoundrel." I'm not such a Luddite to question the value of cut-and-paste in editing, though as the video below shows, I find cutting the more valuable of the pair:



The publishing world is rapidly filling up with new standards and devices, none of which I believe are doing anything to boost readership, or literacy. The large trades and newspapers are rapidly cutting back on employees, and it's not simply a question of their audiences migrating to reading elsewhere. In many cases, their audiences are simply giving up reading in the long form, and satisfying themselves with blurbs of news and "culture" delivered through e-mail portals that they can click and follow to a news website or YouTube if desired.

The core misconception about publishing technology is that it provides a solution, when in reality publishing technology is a tool, and often a problematic tool at that. Publishers who think that a new technology is going to change the popularity of their books or their web content with their audience are fools. At best, chasing the latest standards and devices may give the earliest adopters some PR opportunities, as most publishing journalists are obsessed with technology because it provides the easiest fodder for a regular column. But the time and money those publishers invest in adopting the new technology only makes sense if it provides a profitable revenue stream.

Books may slowly give way to some form of ebooks, but it's not publishers who will shape or control this transition, it's the reading public. As a lifetime addicted reader, I don't have any doubts about the crowning glory of the printed book. It's the ability of a novel to lift the reader out of the surrounding environment, be it an armchair or a subway car, and into the world created by the author and the reader's joint imaginations. While some ebook devices may succeed in doing this, I don't believe that a dedicated ebook reader, such as the Kindle, has a long term future as a single function device. And as soon as you are receiving e-mail alerts or phone calls on your ebook reader, the basic function of the novel in creating an alternative universe is shattered.

Clearly, I don't control the future of Kindle and Sony reader, or the multi-function devices already used to deliver book content, like cellphones, MP3 players, laptops and desktop computers. But neither do the manufacturers or the publishers control the future of these devices, it's all up to consumer choice. My suspicion is that even devices like dedicated ebook readers for public school students which would seem no-brainers will be overtaken by the potential of technology to "add" to the book experience. Therefore, I believe that non-printed books will always suffer from dilution by addition, even though the market share of paper books may one day occupy the market share position that ebooks hold today.

The publishers who survive will be those who concentrate on producing the best possible content for their audiences. Those publishers who fail to identify their audience are wasting their time even thinking about delivery platforms. Once you identify your audience, if it turns out they are all Oprah watchers, by all means release a Kindle edition. But don't put your trust in technologies that promise profits down the road if and when the business model firms up. That only works for the Googles and the Amazons of the world. Any business can buy incremental unit sales at a negative profit margin, but it's simpler to stand on the corner handing out $20 bills until you go broke.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Morris. I've been in the biz for over 20 years, and I find that when I try to comprehend all the technological options, I forget my purpose, which is to publish books. I have a background in computers, and trying to figure all this out is still mind-boggling. So, I just bid out my books to reputable printers and go with the best printer at the best bid. For e-books, just go with the PDF format (I used InDesign), very simple. My readers sure don't care, they just want to eb enteretained.

Thanks again for a geat post, I've often felt like a Luddite, but the truth is, I'm an efficient publisher. :)

Morris Rosenthal said...

Anonymous,

Thank you for the kind words. The funny thing is I'm now considering doing a series of videos on "without practices" - as opposed to "best pratices" - ways of getting a job done without getting a PhD in whatever.

And I should mention the speak-o of the day in the video, I save the files out of Word as PDFs to create ebooks, I don't print them.

Morris

Gary Roberts said...

Morris

Can't agree more. Too many people confuse technology with content. Technology is simply the tool used to deliver the content. Invest all your time and energy in technology without considering content, and to whom you are offering the content, and the technology becomes an albatross.

I see it happen all to often in the library field as well.

Gary

Morris Rosenthal said...

Gary,

I still get angry whenever I see a library dumping books to make space for technology, usually computer centers. The worst part is they are investing time and money in something that will be so omnipresent in the next few years, that only in the poorest of poor neighborhoods will anybody need them. And they'll never get back the books that are gone.

Morris

Morris

Gary Roberts said...

Morris

So I guess you wouldn't want to hear how my workplace dumped around 10,000 books (1/3 of the collection) of obsolete technical books in order to make room for research space? We also got rid of 80% of the journal back issues as they are all available online through subscriptions.

Unfortunately, we could not justify nearly 10,000 square feet of floor space for holding material when that space could be used for research labs. No one was happy about, including the research staff.

Gary

Morris Rosenthal said...

Gary,

Really depends what they were. If you were dumping old copies of books like the "Build Your Own PC" series I wrote for McGraw-Hill, that's fine, some books are truly time limited. But some "obsolete" technical books are the only source for the stepping stones of technology. If somebody burned down the world tommorow (except for your library) and the elctronics section started with VLSI design, we'd all be in trouble.

On the textbook side, most textbooks don't change significantly through their entire run (and math textbooks rarely ever change at all, aside from color inserts and goofy computer problems). I went through graduate school for Electrical Engineering using decades old library discards from an uncle for my radar and antenna courses. Only meaningful things that changed were the page numbers, problems and prices. Textbook publishers are crooks.

Morris

Anonymous said...

In the UK there used to be a programme called Jackanory - famous actors read children's books...now, as this clip demonstrates books can inspire in so many ways and by so many means. It is the content that makes this possible, not the medium as you say.

Pleased you are reading Marryat - I tried reading it on a computer via Project Gutenberg because I couldn't get a proper book version.
It makes reading hard work)

IG

Morris Rosenthal said...

IG,

Marryat is really terrific, but he's not politically correct, writes in the voice of the times through real experience. Treats prostitution and slavery as part of normal life (he was very strong against slavery (and impressment), and sympathetic to the prostitute's life. I suspect that everybody writing English sea stories in the last hundred years borrowed heavily from him as a primary eye witness.

Morris

Anonymous said...

Here's the link I forgot to include in my comment:
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=o1bUsFcMzsA

IG