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World in Conflict and Transition
Trensiters - Digital Content and Web Technologies
Essays dedicated to the new media, doing business on the web, digital content, its creation and distribution, e-publishing, e-books, digital reference, DRM technology, and other related issues.
The Future of Electronic Publishing
By: Sam Vaknin
UNESCO's somewhat arbitrary definition of "book" is:
""Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers".
The emergence of electronic publishing was supposed to change all that. Yet a bloodbath of unusual proportions has taken place in the last few months. Time Warner's iPublish and MightyWords (partly owned by Barnes and Noble) were the last in a string of resounding failures which cast in doubt the business model underlying digital content. Everything seemed to have gone wrong: the dot.coms dot bombed, venture capital dried up, competing standards fractured an already fragile marketplace, the hardware (e-book readers) was clunky and awkward, the software unwieldy, the e-books badly written or already in the public domain.
Terrified by the inexorable process of disintermediation (the establishment of direct contact between author and readers, excluding publishers and bookstores) and by the ease with which digital content can be replicated - publishers resorted to draconian copyright protection measures (euphemistically known as "digital rights management"). This further alienated the few potential readers left. The opposite model of "viral" or "buzz" marketing (by encouraging the dissemination of free copies of the promoted book) was only marginally more successful.
Moreover, e-publishing's delivery platform, the Internet, has been transformed beyond recognition since March 2000.
From an open, somewhat anarchic, web of networked computers - it has evolved into a territorial, commercial, corporate extension of "brick and mortar" giants, subject to government regulation. It is less friendly towards independent (small) publishers, the backbone of e-publishing. Increasingly, it is expropriated by publishing and media behemoths. It is treated as a medium for cross promotion, supply chain management, and customer relations management. It offers only some minor synergies with non-cyberspace, real world, franchises and media properties. The likes of Disney and Bertelsmann have swung a full circle from considering the Internet to be the next big thing in New Media delivery - to frantic efforts to contain the red ink it oozed all over their otherwise impeccable balance sheets.
But were the now silent pundits right all the same? Is the future of publishing (and other media industries) inextricably intertwined with the Internet?
The answer depends on whether an old habit dies hard. Internet surfers are used to free content. They are very reluctant to pay for information (with precious few exceptions, like the "Wall Street Journal"'s electronic edition). Moreover, the Internet, with 3 billion pages listed in the Google search engine (and another 15 billion in "invisible" databases), provides many free substitutes to every information product, no matter how superior. Web based media companies (such as Salon and Britannica.com) have been experimenting with payment and pricing models. But this is besides the point. Whether in the form of subscription (Britannica), pay per view (Questia), pay to print (Fathom), sample and pay to buy the physical product (RealRead), or micropayments (Amazon) - the public refuses to cough up.
Moreover, the advertising-subsidized free content Web site has died together with Web advertising. Geocities - a community of free hosted, ad-supported, Web sites purchased by Yahoo! - is now selectively shutting down Web sites (when they exceed a certain level of traffic) to convince their owners to revert to a monthly hosting fee model. With Lycos in trouble in Europe, Tripod may well follow suit shortly. Earlier this year, Microsoft has shut down ListBot (a host of discussion lists). Suite101 has stopped paying its editors (content authors) effective January 15th. About.com fired hundreds of category editors. With the ugly demise of Themestream, WebSeed is the only content aggregator which tries to buck the trend by relying (partly) on advertising revenue.
Paradoxically, e-publishing's main hope may lie with its ostensible adversary: the library. Unbelievably, e-publishers actually tried to limit the access of library patrons to e-books (i.e., the lending of e-books to multiple patrons). But, libraries are not only repositories of knowledge and community centres. They are also dominant promoters of new knowledge technologies. They are already the largest buyers of e-books. Together with schools and other educational institutions, libraries can serve as decisive socialization agents and introduce generations of pupils, students, and readers to the possibilities and riches of e-publishing. Government use of e-books (e.g., by the military) may have the same beneficial effect.
As standards converge (Adobe's Portable Document Format and Microsoft's MS Reader LIT format are likely to be the winners), as hardware improves and becomes ubiquitous (within multi-purpose devices or as standalone higher quality units), as content becomes more attractive (already many new titles are published in both print and electronic formats), as more versatile information taxonomies (like the Digital Object Identifier) are introduced, as the Internet becomes more gender-neutral, polyglot, and cosmopolitan - e-publishing is likely to recover and flourish.
This renaissance will probably be aided by the gradual decline of print magazines and by a strengthening movement for free open source scholarly publishing. The publishing of periodical content and academic research (including, gradually, peer reviewed research) may be already shifting to the Web. Non-fiction and textbooks will follow. Alternative models of pricing are already in evidence (author pays to publish, author pays to obtain peer review, publisher pays to publish, buy a physical product and gain access to enhanced online content, and so on). Web site rating agencies will help to discriminate between the credible and the in-credible. Publishing is moving - albeit kicking and screaming - online.
The Disintermediation of Content
By: Sam Vaknin
Are content brokers - publishers, distributors, and record companies - a thing of the past?
In one word: disintermediation
The gradual removal of layers of content brokering and intermediation - mainly in manufacturing marketing - is the continuation of a long term trend. Consider music for instance. Streaming audio on the internet ("soft radio"), or downloadable MP3 files may render the CD obsolete - but they were preceded by radio music broadcasts. But the novelty is that the Internet provides a venue for the marketing of niche products and reduces the barriers to entry previously imposed by the need to invest in costly "branding" campaigns and manufacturing and distribution activities.
This trend is also likely to restore the balance between artists and the commercial exploiters of their products. The very definition of "artist" will expand to encompass all creative people. One will seek to distinguish oneself, to "brand" oneself and to auction one's services, ideas, products, designs, experience, physique, or biography, etc. directly to end-users and consumers. This is a return to pre-industrial times when artisans ruled the economic scene. Work stability will suffer and work mobility will increase in a landscape of shifting allegiances, head hunting, remote collaboration, and similar labour market trends.
But distributors, publishers, and record companies are not going to vanish. They are going to metamorphose. This is because they fulfil a few functions and provide a few services whose importance is only enhanced by the "free for all" Internet culture.
Content intermediaries grade content and separate the qualitative from the ephemeral and the atrocious. The deluge of self-published and vanity published e-books, music tracks and art works has generated few masterpieces and a lot of trash. The absence of judicious filtering has unjustly given a bad name to whole segments of the industry (e.g., small, or web-based publishers). Consumers - inundated, disappointed and exhausted - will pay a premium for content rating services. Though driven by crass commercial considerations, most publishers and record companies do apply certain quality standards routinely and thus are positioned to provide these rating services reliably.
Content brokers are relationship managers. Consider distributors: they provide instant access to centralized, continuously updated, "addressbooks" of clients (stores, consumers, media, etc.). This reduces the time to market and increases efficiency. It alters revenue models very substantially. Content creators can thus concentrate on what they do best: content creation, and reduce their overhead by outsourcing the functions of distribution and relationships management. The existence of central "relationship ledgers" yields synergies which can be applied to all the clients of the distributor. The distributor provides a single address that content re-sellers converge on and feed off. Distributors, publishers and record companies also provide logistical support: warehousing, consolidated sales reporting and transaction auditing, and a single, periodic payment.
Yet, having said all that, content intermediaries still over-charge their clients (the content creators) for their services. This is especially true in an age of just-in-time inventory and digital distribution. Network effects mean that content brokers have to invest much less in marketing, branding and advertising once a product's first mover advantage is established. Economic laws of increasing, rather than diminishing, returns mean that every additional unit sold yields a HIGHER profit - rather than a declining one. The pie is getting bigger.
Hence, the meteoric increase in royalties publishers pay authors from sales of the electronic versions of their work (anywhere from Random House's 35% to 50% paid by smaller publishers). As this tectonic shift reverberates through the whole distribution chain, retail outlets are beginning to transact directly with content creators. The borders between the types of intermediaries are blurred. Barnes and Noble (the American bookstores chain) has, in effect, become a publisher. Many publishers have virtual storefronts. Many authors sell directly to their readers, acting as publishers. The introduction of "book ATMs" - POD (Print On Demand) machines, which will print
every conceivable title in minutes, on the spot, in "book kiosks" - will give rise to a host of new intermediaries. Intermediation is not gone. It is here to stay because it is sorely needed. But it is in a state of flux. Old maxims break down. New modes of operation emerge.
Functions are amalgamated, outsourced, dispensed with, or created from scratch. It is an exciting scene, full with opportunities.