Thursday, July 19, 2007

Publishing: Is it dying?

The Literature Board of the Australia Council and Copyright Agency ran a seminar on the digital future of publishing in Sydney on 17 July. It was a very good, well-attended seminar, much more useful and relevant than similar ones I have attended over the past 10 or 15 years and perhaps that is because something is finally begin to take shape that we can actually term "digital publishing". But in many respects the views expressed at the seminar continued to repeat the mantra that if we (writers and publishers) do not leap into the digital future we are doomed.

The assumption here is that the future of publishing must be digital and I am not sure that that is true. There are plenty of opportunities to explore in the digital world but I am not yet writing off books and print publications. First we need to ensure we know what the digital world has to offer us. After all it has changed our lives in so many ways already. The fact that I can write this blog is indicative of that.

But I am not earning income from this type of writing (yet). Writers who spend considerable amounts of their time online writing blogs like this are taking time away from writing works that have more potential to give them income. I have two book reviews I need to complete, for example.

The argument put up by the digital evangelists is that a blog like this will give me a presence in the digital world and expand my profile so that I will have more opportunities to earn income from other writing sources. Having a blog like this is said to be part of creating the author as brand name.

I don't know. It is certainly easy enough to start a blog and add links to my writing available on the web. And I think it is as certain that publishing models have changed and will continue to change. Nobody these days is investing in printed encyclopaedias. Journals are more and more likely to be published online. There are advantages to both writers and readers in this. The material can be more immediate and corrections and commentary can be added to the original digital publication.

Educational publishing in general is suffering in the traditional model of print-based text because the consumers -- teachers and students -- can find better resources online or in other places. Already we have seen Thomson Corporation and Reed Elsevier depart textbook publishing, although both companie retain their lucrative online professional publishing operations. They have built themselves profitable online niches.

Pearson has opted to acquire more, as shown by its recent acquistion of the international Harcourt operations. Is Pearson able to re-engineer itself from a traditional publisher to a supplier of digital material in time to beat the critical nexus when print=based income will decline and digital income will not yet be sufficient to replace it? We shall see. It is interesting that Houghton Mifflin-Riverdeep have purchased Harcourt in the USA. Riverdeep is fundamentally a supplier of digital content. It does not ned to re-engineer itself. I'll be interested to see how each of these companies is performing in three years time.

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