During this session, the speakers focused on the chances the that digital publishing offered to contemporary society. At the same time they addressed the challenges digitization posed to traditional publishing houses and related institutions.
Bas Savenije @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Moderator Bas Savenije introduced the session 'Future Publishing Industries.' An important aspect of our contemporary digital landscape is that it affords more possibilities for smaller players in the market to make money. This also threatens the more traditional modes of doing business of established publishing houses. As Savenije explained, this change of the business landscape is visible foremost in changes within the supply chain of the publishing world. The parties involved - libraries, booksellers, publishers, authors and the consumer - all have the ability to directly interact with one another, without using intermediaries. This has drastically changed their relationship towards eachother and the way business can be done. Plus, added Bas, we have not even factored in the big new players like Amazon and Google. Matters enough to discuss, as the audience soon found out.
PDF of Bas Savenije's presentation here: Future Publishing Industries
James Bridle @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
James Bridle is an editor, publisher, writer, consultant, producer, programmer, designer. He has been working in all area’s of publishing: in marketing, publicity, editoring and production.
For an article on his lecture, refer to this post by Elias van Hees.
Suzanne Holtzer @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Suzanne Holtzer is editor-in-chief of the Bezige Bij (Busy Bee). At the start of her lecture she talked about what a book meant to her, and how the Busy Bee Publishing House came into being. It started out in 1944 as a resistance movement during the war. The evidence, its first work, is conserved to this day. It is the poetic pamphlet 'De Achttien Dooden', or 'The Eighteen Dead', by artist Jan Campert.
Suzanne went on to remark that digital modes of production and distribution were challenging the traditional publishing industry. Holtzer and her company were experimenting with several authors, distributing them in the online realm. She expected an increase in the popularity of the e-book, without seeing the physical book vanish. An important remark she made, was that literature is about the beauty of language, and that the medium is only second to its content. She wondered, however, if these works preserved online would last over 60 years, like Campert's poem.
Holtzer then explained some qualities the physical book has over digital text, namely their own weight, the beauty of the cover and the fact that you could stick your nose in it and smell it. She said you don't have to print books, but you have to be able to multiply the content, which makes the case about content, about its immaterial ownership.
Nicholas Spice @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Nicholas Spice works as a literary critic with the London Review of Books, a periodical that has faced many challenges due to the changing landscape of publishing, reading and distributing. He saw difficulties in building readership and in the high cost advertising market. Another problem he saw was the huge amount of inefficiency in the world of online content distribution. The LRB is also faced with the increasing fragmentation of the internet, in the way texts in diverse forms are being disseminated all over the web.
Nicholas was sceptical of the ways in which people nowadays engage in reading online. He was concerned with the general standard of quality many media sources offered, and cited the LBR as one of the rare authoritative literary sources that still existed, functioning as a quality filter. Other examples within this rare breed were the NYTimes and the New York Review of Books. It has become too costly for other literary magazines to arrive at their audiences.
It's a changing landscape, as Spice explained, as the audience now finds the magazines and their content, instead of the other way around. This disaggregated the experience, people are now able to enter at any point and there is thus a shift in engagement to a more hypertextual experience, which leads to more visits. These visits are, however, of a shorter duration, due to the nature of the medium.
The general democratization of publishing now focuses more on the reader, while moving away from the panel of experts. But that counters what Spice's business is doing, because its goal is to exclude not to include. Spice used a quote by Clive James that was illustrative of the value of these periodicals, saying these were periodicals to be in, because they know who to keep out. Spice went on to say that the company sifts through outpourings of the publishing industry that seem worthy of attention. It allows the reader to engage with the writers, but it is heavily edited. Spice did not excuse himself as he was not defending the tradition, but he said it was just what civilization had been about, as works of art and books of philosophy are of supreme value to us, and conserving them was an essential feature of cultural tradition.
Spice then criticized the way in which this new open form was romanticized, fetishized even, in contemporary society. From this point flows that he sees different modes of content seem unequally valued, as seen in what he called the 'overevaluation of the solitary'. This relates to fetishization; it is the fetishization of real-time over artificial time, or in other words valuing the spontaneous content over that which flows from long consideration, according to Spice. Spice maintains that the richness of the text is always determined by the non-realtime activities performed by individuals; we should not overvalue collaborative online efforts, as the information chain may function fast, but the value that is created out of it, is necessarily slow.
Finally, Spice raises two questions: Firstly, can we survive in this mediaclimate and continue to recognize the value of the considered works over the immediate and the spontaneous? Secondly, will a new environment come into place, against the realtime content creation and its new orality -- what will change?
Simon Worthington @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Simon Worthington is co-founder of MUTE Publishing, an independent small publisher which is engaging in new forms of digital and hardcopy publishing. MUTE is interested in publishing works related to culture, art and politics after the net. It also publishes a magazine on these topics, which is available in print or online. Simon was optimistic about the ways in which new business models are being brought about in the digital age.
MUTE started when the Mozilla browser first entered the market in '94. People were able to upload content on the web, which was free to share, and they were able to connect with the audience. A big step for MUTE was 2005, when they started adding print on demand to their businessmodel. The print-on-demand concept is a service that is being more widely used every day, allowing customers to print small editions at a modest price. So there were two major advantages: one, little capital was needed and two, you could print internationally, which meant there were less shipping cost and you could gain revenue outside your region, according to Worthington.
So MUTE got its assets and successes from the opensource project, but there were also disadvantages relating to the continuity of the process. Worthington pointed to anxieties regarding technology and their negative effects on the physical book as well as its digital counterpart. An even greater problem in his eyes was the overarching constraint globalization and global capitalism put on the further emergence of openness in the digital landscape. Worthington is critical of what he called the 'Soviet' model as well as capitalist control.
Bookstores which are closing do not necessarily mean that there is no demand for the printed book, but more that enterpreneurs have alternative viable ventures to inject their capital in, as Worthington noted. In the publishing industry as a whole, he noticed a succession of buyouts, to create a global supply chain. Worthington said HTML5 has the potential to disrupt the market, now dominated by Apple and Amazon, once again.
Then what about the smaller publications; they are nodes in a network, of critical and cultural writers. The conversations are the same, Worthington added, as it is about the way in which you relate to your audience and about a sustainable businessmodel. Worthington was however sceptical about the fair entering of the market by smaller publishers; he maintained that methods like flatrates and micropayment would never be viable, simply because the big publishers won't allow it.
Liz McGettigan @ The Unbound Book Conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
Liz McGettigan is Head of Edinburgh City’s transforming Library and Information Services. As she put it, she is responsible for the conservation of a recorded past for the future population. Liz spoke on the subject of the changing roles of libraries under influence of digital media. She said contemporary libraries should offer new ways of engaging with the community. With that engagement comes the promise of including the social groups that were left behind. She sees a lot of potential in this form of sustainable government. Libraries would become more accesible as a meeting point for different social groups, functioning like a knowledge sharing base in a modernized form.
There is a very interesting process going on, since the influence of digital technology has challenged the essence of the library, forcing it to reconceptualize. McGettigan sees developing local content as a key growth area. The most important aspect of the Edinburgh library is that it is 'free', meaning that it is freely accessible, aiming for inclusion and the stimulation of education.
McGettigan has seen the numbers of visits as well as the lending increase since the introduction of the digital features of the library, one being its online services. It is, according to McGettigan, successful in grasping the positive features of the book and merging them with social activities into a hybrid library. In that vein the Edinburgh Public Library also services institutions like hospitals and prisons. Another aspect of the openness could be seen in its focus on serving a general audience. For example, the Edinburgh libraries offer tourists free Wi-Fi, and they focus strongly on customer service, and of course on openness and inclusion.
They have developed a library app, and are diversifying their services and reaching out to the community. It is thus a 'hybrid organization creating a space to have a physical social network in place', as McGettigan put it. The role of PC's in this relationship is diminishing, due to the ever emerging use of other mobile devices like smartphones.
McGettigan was enthusiastic about print-on-demand machines and espresso book machines. This doesn't mean the death of the book, but it creates a new hybrid between library and audience, in which the book's role is changing but staying at the forefront.
The Scottish government has been running into problems over the last decades, as it was faced with challenges in keeping the nation competitive economically speaking. McGettigan applauded the policies that governments put in place, of which the reconceptualization of the library is one example. It means trust, authority and a safe place accross the whole world and McGettigan sees it as an essential condition to turn the brand into something that nurtures community. As she put it: "In the future I see a very vibrant role for libraries accross the country". She was not thinking of the demise, but of a fantastic place of education, aimed at digital inclusion. It might be vanity, she said half jokingly, but librarians might become a more valuable species, due to the proliferation of the internet. Their roles are changing from custodians of the books to that of gathererers of people, activities and relevant information.
Joost Kircz started off the discussion round with an interesting conclusion, namely that what came out of the conference thus far was that the library could be defined as a 'streetcorner university'. This statement referred to the accesibility of the institution as well as its aim to educate the public. Still, he was critical of its function. In his eyes, too much was being published, both nationally and internationally, for the library to conserve everything. This statement questioned how the quality works would be sifted out in the future.
Liz McGettigan replied that the task the library faced was that it served to focus on the quality titles. The popular titles that only lasted for a while would be downloadable as e-books, as they would be redundant in a few months. Suzanne added that it were the books on the shelves, which carried the labels of publishing houses, that allowed the customer to recognize their value. She found that to be harder on the internet, where the quality of the works would be less identifiable, which meant the customer might lose his or her way.
Simon countered this by mentioning that the web was being dominated by brands too - those of known publishers - because the "web mirrors the world we live in", as he said. In Nicholas' eyes, the tiresome buzzword 'wisdom of the crowds' has some truth to it, in this regard, and James agreed to this. He said that books always involved recommendation, and that the internet just slightly accelerated that process, by providing a place to talk and give recommendations. This process was disruptive according to Simon. If you don't publish your work in an authoritative source - like an academic journal - it gets less appreciation and exposure.
Changing relationships in the publishing landscape
The next topic in the discussion was about books. Liz talked about the electronic carrier; it would still concern very vibrant literature. Liz had a big vision about the future of the library, and how it could stay relevant. She had the intention of including all formerly excluded parties, and saw opportunities, for example for the bookseller to have a place within the institution. Then Bas discussed the influence of the cloud, of distribution platforms like Spotify. Liz acknowledged the challenges they put forward, but foremost she saw this as a moment where people could come back to the physical world in these new libraries.
Nicholas and Suzanne discussed the pricing models of publishing houses and maintained that there could be problems ahead due to the systems of price control big companies like Amazon and Apple have in place to determine the price and direction of the market; Nicholas mentioned that this could kill the local distribution platforms.
Bas then went on to pose the question how the library generated income. Liz reacted that e-books were free to download, and that there is an audience for it. Liz explained to Suzanne that they pay the publisher, so there is definitely a business connection between libraries and publishing houses. She admitted the situation might not be perfect, but they were evolving and they have a vision for where libraries need to go.
Social versus Solitary
The discussion shifted to another theme, when Nicholas posed a critical statement towards the value of online communication methods, social chatter and solitude. He said there was a conflation of values going on, as on the one hand new media facilitated contact between people, and on the other hand that contact may well be too superficial. On a positive note, he remarked that it was not much easier to reach the interested audience and invite them for events that are quite obscure, at the drop of an e-mail letter. He said that this wasn't possible in the past, in an economical way at least. He then saw the attendance rates rising significantly, compared to the pre-digital era.
Nicholas went on to critically analyze that writing a book in public is still not viable. Writers will write in their 'ivory tower', promoting solitude, according to Spice, who is critical of the low quality of content in the blogosphere, and the comments attached to that process of content creation. James did not quite agree, as he mentioned the fact that blogs don't have to involve comments. In his opinion, they should be used as tools that create new experiences on the reader's side. The writer can write in a solitary manner, or be socially active while (s)he writes, whatever (s)he pleases.
Then there was a question from the audience by Bob Stein. He remarked that the speakers were 'eloquent' about the glory of print culture, and mentioned that design should not force people in certain directions, but that we should figure out what affordances technologies can offer. Stein was enthusiastic, and expected that the age of the individual is coming to an end. He was excited about 'new technologies yielding a new society in the future', and with that the advent of a new dynamic social reading experience. Nicholas was more pessimistic in this regard, noting that no value comes forth from consensus. He questions whether technology can change human nature in this sense. Suzanne said that the concentration of reading books was something to be considered here. Simon added that there are different ideas in circulation with regard to this matter.
A question from the audience came about whether the speakers of the session had any experience with the ghost of the authors surrounding their work in this digital environment.
In this sense Nicholas argues that authors are also part of the entertainment industry. They also faced the challenges of dealing with their own ego's as their image was dispersed all over the web, being fragmented as it was harder to control their own representation. Spice argued that there was no concentrated building of one's reputation in the digital age, and that these young authors were conflicted due to their hunger for money and status.
Suzanne countered this assumption that young people weren't ambitious or dedicated enough to write. She explained that in her experience, they were able to withdraw from public life for months in a row, dedicating themselves to finishing a work in solitude. James added that the job of the author is not specified, and that technologists and publishers should turn their attention to facilitating authors.
Simon had yet another point of view, stemming from an interview with science-fiction author William Gibson. People at Amazon asked him if he turns off the internet when he writes. Gibson replied that he always has Word opened with Firefox underneath, as a writer is always in the world when he is writing about it. Bridle stated an essential criticism with regard to this matter; namely, that we are building dichotomies between the social web and the non social web, which is not helpful to the debate.
The discussion on social versus solitary intensified as Alan Liu questioned this relation from the audience. He propagated the use of small bands and groups. If you take away Google and Amazon he said, it's just about groups of people producing content. There is an empathy between the activity of expert bands and new ICT technologies. Those small groups could learn from the network, he noted, in processes like peer review. Simon agreed that small pockets of people connecting put best practices into place. It is, however, hard to transcend language barriers, according to him. On a closing note about the library in this regard, Liz remarked that the library has the potential to include the less literate and less technical people into the new world, thereby transcending the digital divide, creating thriving literati, in a social practice that translates well to both on- and offline worlds.
Interacting with new technologies
To conclude the discussion session there was one resonant idea coming from the audience. I think it was from Geert Lovink, who underlined the value of collaborative knowledge production; he saw a shift of power from the copy editor to a much larger group. The emphasis should thus be on the tools that are being used, according to him, because many of them are outdated and not workable enough at present. Geert noted that Word was for example still being used, but that it was not functional enough anymore as a collaborative tool, naming the TrackChanges function as an example. New software should be developed and transferred into the social realm, since it is not about solitary confinement of the single author, but about group efforts, Geert concluded.
This discussion illuminated some of the challenges that face the publishing industry. The nature of the problems range from technological matters to social questions and from political to economical perspectives. It was evident that different branches of publishing value the 'social' activity and the content it produces differently. Some prefer the solitary, considered efforss, while others celebrate the collaborative potential of the digital age. To conclude, it was also clear that the way future engagement would be shaped, is to be heavily dependent upon the creative development of new collaborative tools. In other words, technological affordances go hand in hand with human interaction to create a future reading and publishing experience that holds many uncertainties, but also loads of opportunities for the publishing industry and its actors.