Has digital publishing overreached?

Michael Bhaskar • 20 May 2013

Michael Bhaskar asks whether we should listen to those who are sceptical about digital publishing.
It's been clear for the past year or so that publishers feel relatively at ease with digital. They have systems in place and no longer worry so much. The pace of change, once frenetic, tends towards the if-not-leisurely, then the just-about-manageable.

Partly this is about having a clear ebook workflow that is standard across the industry. Partly it is down to well established, practiced and skilled digital teams. Some of it is to do with the considerable revenues, especially for fiction, accruing from ebooks. We can now predict ebook sales with a similar level of informed judgement as we always have for print. Not saying a huge amount, perhaps, but still something. The dominance of Amazon has the upside of at least putting a (relatively) known quantity in the driving seat.

However, I have recently noticed a new narrative emerging among publishers, differing from the guarded optimism that they may have expressed up to now. Yes, the sceptical backlash is in swing. It runs something like this and makes a few telling points: technology, it is argued, actually changes far less than we are prone to thinking. For example, even in the Second World War more horses were used than jeeps or tanks. Moreover even if we accept technology can and does change rapidly, then people's - consumers' - behaviour does not. Actually, for the most part, people like things much as they always have done. Many recent technologies echo older technologies in their feel and functionality. Witness the ubiquitous phenomenon of skeumorphism, where digital design anachronistically echoes that of the physical world. Apple's brushed book "bookcases" are a famous example.

Beyond this, questions are being asked about how good digital is anyway. Orwellian, quasi-monopolistic, no longer a space for innovation: formerly enthusiastic voices are questioning if the undoubted centralisation of digital networks isn't a bad thing after all.

Alternative future
An alternative future for publishing is being sketched. This is about a return to print and prime print production values, the physical object an even greater repository of value in the weightless digital world.

It's about what the publisher, writer and technologist James Bridle has called "the new value of text". Away from the flashing lights of our myriad screens, we actually might like to do that timeless activity: read a book. Cory Doctorow, hardly a sceptic of digital culture, has agreed.

So, says the argument, there are a lot of issues in the book world. But if we cleave to good old fashioned editorial values, texts, solid print production, decent bookshops and our core mission, the storm will pass - in fact, as we see the plateauing of ebook sales and a retreat from some of the more outré products of recent years, the storm is already passing. In short, digital publishing has overreached, is in for a serious retrenchment, and this is a good thing. Schadenfreude alert!

There is something to recommend the view. Certainly, I am convinced the value of crafted physical objects is already increasing. We have to believe in the power of stories told with words and we have to support the traditional supply chain for books. Digital publishing's most starry-eyed acolytes have not done the industry any favours by hyping expectations to unreasonable levels.

No room for complacency
Still. And you might expect me to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway: don't believe the backlash. There are several lines of argument here. First, and most broadly, this kind of defeatist thinking has never helped publishing before. The book world was content to ride the coat-tails of other, sexier and ultimately much richer media for the entire 20th century. Conversely, to this day, publishing is a business driven by charismatic entrepreneurial spirit. So let's make the most of it and avoid mistakes of the past. Let's be the ones to mould the space, set the agenda and claim the rewards.

Second, we simply cannot be complacent when convergence is driving all forms of media onto the same platform, effectively into the same channel. We are not just in competition with each other, but with every media producer in the world - all the television shows, free-to-play games, celebrity magazines and the rest of it. I know many people disagree with this point, but you simply cannot avoid the way convergence works nor the way humans interact with media.

Lastly, although digital is entering a more mature and apparently stable phase, some threats are intensifying, not going away. To name just three: a second-hand market for digital products could explode the whole field; now ebooks are widely accepted, the risk of piracy has grown immeasurably from when they were niche items; and the slide in ebook pricing represents the biggest, fastest leakage of value in the 550-year history of the book. Given just these three, an astute digital strategy has never been more important.

So of course digital publishing hasn't overreached. It is only just getting interesting.

Michael Bhaskar is Digital Publishing Director at Profile Books and Serpent's Tail. He can be found on Twitter as @ajaxlogos and is author of a forthcoming book about publishing.

This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Show Daily.