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BW Businessworld

Parallel Realities

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I have an android phone. It is certainly a handy tool. Technology is super-efficient. It allows me to check emails and download and read documents while on the move. Juggling between professional commitments and being a mother means that it is not always possible for me to be sitting at the desk, working a few hours at a stretch. But I can certainly read and work, even while the baby is with me in the park. My daughter loves my phone as well, whenever she can lay her hands on it. It is quite fascinating to watch how a two-year-old can grasp sophisticated technology — touchscreen, apps, camera, flipping images and adjusting their size with the tips of her fingers, to name a few steps.
 
The Kindle has been credited with the boom in digital publishing. A snazzy little gadget, it is a blessing for ordinary readers especially since it is light, easy to carry and the brightness and resolution of the screen can be adjusted to suit the reader. The Kindle is also a boon for children, senior citizens and people with special abilities, since the text-size can easily be adjusted. It has an audio option and an interactive platform, which makes it a useful informative and entertaining option. A number of other electronic platforms — such as the Nook and the iPad — have flooded the market in recent years. And with the Android revolution, it has become possible to use smartphones for a multitude of tasks: reading documents, listening to music and browsing the internet.

Capitalising on these hardware advances, there has been a surge in digital publishing, which bodes well for consumers due to the availability of multiple options. It also creates an appetite among publishers since there is an impulse to buy immediately. The print community, however, is a little apprehensive about what lies ahead. But no one has really figured out the problem of digital rights management (DRM), especially when tackling different generations of technology and platforms, infrastructure, purchasing power abilities and of the costs involved. The release of Harry Potter books on the Pottermore website shows how it is possible to play around with different formats (refer to the section on compatible devices and reading section) where authors have the option of becoming their own publisher and distributor.
 
Progressive Co-existence
As a mother, I'm both impressed and alarmed at how easily my daughter uses the electronic gadgets As a publisher, it makes me think a great deal about the hullaballo over the electronic vs print/traditional publishing debates that dominate the media. I am not convinced that it is a "versus" debate. In fact Peter Booth Wiley, Chairman of the Wiley Group, believes the future represents a "blended environment". David McKlay, Senior Curator of the John Murray Archives at the National Library of Scotland, greatly experienced in the use of archival technology for libraries has implemented a different point of view. Although he hasn't been directly involved in the current publishing industry, he has been engaged with the use of technology in promoting access, interpretation and the use of an historic and paper based archive and print collection. Consequently, the National Library of Scotland has digitised a small (c.17,000 images) but significant amount of material and uses these images in a number of ways: their website and specific applications such as the interactive display on Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) (History of the book feature), the John Murray Archive exhibition showcases digital images, flash animation and voice recording to present original material in innovative and engaging ways.
 
When I asked him about the future of publishing, especially in its new avatar of a blended environment, McKlay said that, "the key challenge and opportunity of current and future technology in publishing is to address the changing literary and reading habits. By this I mean addressing how people read — how they browse, absorb and interpret information. No longer can one expect the general (or indeed the specialised) public to read large amounts of linear text (in whatever format). We need to layer information and make it available in a variety of ways." The implied challenge, he believes, will appreciably expand the potential interested readership and offer them a greater learning experience. And while this doesn't signal the end of the traditional print culture, as it will continue to run parallel with modern technology publishing, while continuing to grow(as it has always done).
 
The Learning Curve
Last year at Publishing Next where I chaired a panel discussion on digital publishing I said that, "We need to recognise that the Internet has brought about a democratisation of knowledge and accessibility, and the publishing industry, as we know it today — and I mean globally and not just in India — which is unique and has its own self characteristics, is undergoing a very severe test, albeit a challenging and an interesting one. Right now the Internet is creating this churn where we think that we don't know where digital books are; there is this frontier mentality existing which says that anything goes. So publishers are concerned about quality control. But publishers will always be there, they will be required: publishers who are specialists, who are good at their jobs, and not specialists in terms of just digital technology. What the publishing industry has to realise is that the churn we are experiencing today is similar to what the music industry went through at least ten years ago. As in the case of vinyl records, that are now considered out dated, the music industry is creating new package deals. If you want a collector's edition of a vinyl record, you get the entire package deal of, the iPod download, etc. for free. But you buy that at a premium. Thus, what publishers have to do is concentrate on new business models, adapt to the new, changing, publishing ecosystem, and learn from examples in other industries. And also be very clear about the business of it. It is a misconception that e-books are cheap, but they require the same amount of labour as a print book. However, what is different is that the Internet and e-book/digital publishing gives a person, the opportunity to self-publish. And when you get that opportunity, it means that your income streams and business models change. You don't necessarily need a publisher who will only give you a 10 or a 20 per cent royalty. Amazon is different because they were pioneers and so they are giving 70 per cent. But the point is that you can still earn. There are a lot of questions, a lot of opportunities, but let's see where we go from here."
 
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an independent international publishing consultant and columnist. She may be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @JBhattacharji