It’s time to talk about books and the Web, but not in the way you think.
In 1993, Adobe introduced its PDF format to the masses for the first time. This technology changed the way the publishing business was run, and quickly. For the first time, any computer (regardless of operating system) and any word-processing software could be used to create a final output. With the PDF, there were fewer incompatibilities between devices and mechanical printers, and publishers didn’t have to worry as much about missing fonts or bizarre display problems. Best of all, it was easy. Easy to create, easy to implement, and easy to edit. Now, in 2016, it’s rare to find any publisher or printer that doesn’t use PDF for its document management. Even digital ARC (advance reader copies) are more commonly distributed as PDF than print. It’s now a ubiquitous, standard format, and it would feel pretty bizarre if any publisher said “Oh, we don’t create those,” especially since many of the major book manufacturers require PDFs built to internal specifications (see page 29 of Ingram’s guidelines, for an example).
Adobe, in releasing the PDF format, probably never envisioned that it would set in motion what would become a decades-long, contentious debate between the publishing industry and Web professionals: What is the book, and what will it be in the future?
Then Came the Ebook
In 2007, the IDPF officially adopted the ePub format as its official standard. The IDPF “promotes the development of electronic publishing applications and products that will benefit creators of content, makers of reading systems, and consumers.”1 Since then, many have forecasted that publishing would go the way of mega-music corporations and newspapers, but in The Economist’s essay “From Pixels to Print,” (which is presented in a startling and beautifully modern way), the authors argue that “Analogies with the music and newspaper businesses have proved flawed. The music business collapsed in part because the bundle it was peddling fell apart: people wanted the right to buy one song, not the whole album. Books are not so easily picked apart. The music business also suffered because piracy was so easy: anyone who buys a CD can extract the music it contains in digital format in seconds, and can then share it online. Creating a digital file from a printed book by scanning each page, by contrast, is a nightmare. The fate of newspapers has been driven by the decline of advertising—a business publishers (which sell books to readers, not readers to advertisers) were never in.” Instead, the more profound changes to the publishing industry came in two ways:
- ePub and other ebook formats paved the way for the rise of self-publishing into the mainstream and as a viable business model;
- and a gradual but increasingly urgent shift away from the traditional production methods of print-to-digital, to XML-to-print.
While neither of these topics are the purpose of this particular essay, it is worth noting that both are extremely important in the context of the debate about the future of the book. It’s easy to lose the forest arguing about the trees, and in the discourse between publishing professionals, independent authors and Web professionals, it’s almost too easy to find hyperbole that misses the point.
Workflows are important. As the industry starts to demand more content distribution methods from its content, it’s not unreasonable for Web professionals to demand more efficient processes to convert that content. Indie authors have had more impetus to work in this fashion, as the majority of their earnings come from ebooks, rather than print. Therefore, when companies like Draft2Digital or Smashwords crop up, promising multiple outputs from a single origin file (and with higher royalty percentages than a traditional press would offer), those authors are the earliest adopters. But for traditional publishers, who have started to see the ebook industry stabilize in the range of about 17%, there is less drive to change a production process that has served them well since InDesign made PDF and ePub exports automatic after print design. Going back to the ideas behind PDF, and its explosive rise to being the standard in the print industry, the XML model still has a long way to go to prove input-efficiency to the companies who would have to implement those systems and train generations of staff on standards.
Second, publishing is a special market, as The Economist hinted. Unlike other industries where the focus is on growth and stealing market share, publishing is more symbiotic in its competitor relationships. Publishers and printers all specialize, which means there are few hard feelings (just missed opportunities) when a competitor signs on an author that turns out to be profitable. Furthermore, despite the pitchforks from some members of the self-publisher community, the industry can and does support multiple business models. All of those models require different ways of organization and thinking…. no one option is better than another.
So, what is the issue, exactly?
“Web is the future; Print is a relic.”
For the last decade, the argument has been about technology’s relationship with the book—web-first methodologies, digital-only formats, and the “ever-growing-decline” of print—and not about the idea that the physical book, that one printed with ink and paper, is also part of that evolutionary change. It’s likely that the nostalgic lens with which the world views the book has contributed to this close-minded way of thinking about the material form of the book: that a book is either print (static) or digital (evolving). Framing the two mediums that way is synonymous with saying traditional and self-publishing are a dichotomy, rather than two platforms that work in tandem with each other (intentionally or not).
In his essay “Why the Book and Internet Will Merge,” Hugh McGuire, the man behind PressBooks and LibriVox, stated, “In 2008 […] about 1% of trade book sales in the US were ebooks. In 2011 the number was close to 20%. Many expect 50% of trade sales to be ebooks by 2015, if not sooner. Books may not yet be on the Internet in great numbers, but they sure are in people’s Kindles, iBooks, Nooks, and Kobos.” But according to BookNet (at least for the Canadian market), ebooks have plateaued in 2016 at 16-17% of total trade sales. And beyond trade, independent and self-published authors are also starting to see the decline, as the Author Earnings report in October 2016 showed.
While McGuire argues that the ebook market has been crippled by publishers who are (perhaps justifiably) trying to control the e-publishing model to protect their print model, the ebook market’s decline may also be a result of a consumer shift back to print. It could also simply be a blip because of the surge of adult coloring books over the last two years.
Regardless, print isn’t going anywhere. But if Web developers want to get publishers excited about new workflows and tech, maybe it’s time to show them that it’s not just the digital realm that “gives birth to new and exciting things we can’t yet imagine.”2 Technology and innovation don’t have to be caged in the Web, because print can evolve, too.
Transmedia and the Book
There is no denying the way in which we create and consume narratives has drastically changed with the Web and the technology created in its periphery. They have provided multiple levels of interaction for singular stories, most simply showcased in the way our news is now delivered: in instant, snackable “NowThis” videos on Facebook, 140-character headlines on Twitter, full length YouTube broadcasts, longform articles on established platforms, on TV and in print.
From this deluge of new media forms and opportunity has come a new wave of innovation known as transmedia storytelling. Henry Jenkins, a Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, defines transmedia storytelling as “represent[ing] a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”3 An example of how this theory might be implemented is in the simultaneous print and digital-game book, The Pickle Index. Briefly, The Pickle Index uses a multitude of delivery methods to tell a story “over 10 days,” providing an immersive and subversive style of storytelling to the reader. While not a true transmedia experience, as the reader would either choose the digital format OR the print version to experience the novel, it nonetheless starts to show what is possible with the future of narrative.
It may be surprising, but print books aren’t resisting this realm of innovation. A good example of this sort of storytelling evolution can be found in S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dourst. Just have a look at their trailer to see how the narrative is being played with. In S., two (and possibly three) stories are being told all at once. One, in a fictional novel The Ship of Theseus, and another in the margins and newspaper articles, letters and notes scattered throughout the pages. Drop the book(!) and all of this will fall out of order…. forcing the reader into yet another style of investigative storytelling. Creating an environment where different kinds of storytelling can happen, such as in S., unwraps the definition of a “book” and what a book—yes, even a printed book—can do… something publishers have been resistant to.
One of the best things about these sorts of innovations in print is that there are fewer cases of incompatibility. In the case of The Pickle Index, the creators only made it for iOS systems. Why they might have done so is irrelevant, only that they, by the very container they built the system within, limit themselves to one platform. For print, there are no such limitations. Print innovations do not have to worry about shifting online technologies (if they are careful) or startup failure—even if the way something was created goes away, the book itself doesn’t stop being usable (Anyone remember CD-ROM?) They don’t have to worry about OS systems, and because of the proliferation of online shopping markets, they don’t even have to technically put their books into every brick and mortar store to reach their audience.
Best of all, with the new augmentation technologies on the market, like conductive ink and image-linked media software, print can begin to move towards a bundled, transmedia experience that can excite publishers into being more bold in their book development (and therefore put more thought and funds into standardizing XML workflows and APIs, something Web professionals have been begging for for decades).
Here are just some of the amazing projects out there right now:
So Why Isn’t Everyone Doing This Yet?
Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this technology, it hasn’t seen widespread adoption. Why is that the case?
There are certainly enough start-ups striving to be the unicorn of publishing technology, so it’s not about access. Among some of the more well-established companies and projects include: Blippar, Blink, The Next Ten App Book, SmartBound, Booke, Geozer, ReBook, ElectroLibrary, Nimble, Modern Polaxis and FingerLink.
It is my belief that the struggle comes down to a simple marketing problem. Much like the debate over self-publishing and traditional publishing, and the dichotomies that form in the muck of offended sensibilities, the tech industry hasn’t done a good enough job pitching their projects. Because of that, publishers haven’t seen the true merits of treating their industry more malleably. Again, the publishing industry isn’t like the music or newspaper business. But they don’t believe it themselves, because everyone telling them to innovate is screaming “Print is dead!” and “Everything has to be on the Web!” The industry has turned defensive, sabotaging the ebook market and digital development to protect print sales (McGuire)…. but they’ve never been told that digital and print can work in tandem. That they don’t have to be multiple formats over multiple devices. Publishers could conceivably ditch ePub and Kindle altogether and embrace a single-product bundle: buy a print version, get instant access to the digital (for those that prefer larger font sizes or portability)… NetGalley and other ARC (advance reader copy) distributors already use Adobe Digital Editions, where Adobe, again, created a system that could be easily implemented and is full of convenience (digital copies can expire, for example, if they’re only being rented… So, if Sally buys the print edition but is going away for the weekend, HarperCollins could give her book a unique code that lets her [alone] rent it to her smartphone or tablet for a month.) Readers win, too; they would own the book, not simply be leasing it from Amazon or other ebook providers.
In addition, using the print version of a book as a base (or platform) could open up possibilities first conceived of in book apps (but had problems with discoverability, due to the nature of how apps exist on digital devices). There could be audio and video in-book purchases (think gaming industry), book trailers directly connected to the cover images of the books they are trying to sell (book trailers are great; but no one goes to YouTube to find books—imagine instead being able to scan cover images in a store and get the trailer right there, or even an interview with the author), and the use of 3D mapping to make digital pop-up books (and not just for kids; the applications for textbooks and architectural design are immense). Publishers could even limit color printing to the digital augmentations, allowing them to curb printing costs for books that usually are quite expensive unnecessarily (again, think textbooks.)
In short, books are evolving. And what’s happening on the Web is exciting and not to be dismissed… but neither is the world of print, which has the potential to be not only cross-platform and multi-media, but free from being made obsolete as new formats come and go in the digital landscape. Like the PDF, print is here to stay.
The Book: Not a Static Object
Now that the ebook industry is beginning to level off and show a consistent market share, publishing professionals can take stock of what has worked and what hasn’t. Formats that impede innovation can be put aside (my personal preference would be to see MOBI go away. Forever.) but now publishers can also look at their print books and think more broadly of that physical format being part of the ecosystem of change. The printed book is not a relic. It’s simply a format that works. And it will continue to work… but that doesn’t mean it can’t see a little evolution itself. Just don’t give it a touch bar.
1. “About Us” IDPF: International Digital Publishing Forum. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. http://idpf.org/about-us.↩
2. McGuire, Hugh. “Why the Book and the Internet Will Merge.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. PressBooks. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. https://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/book-and-the-internet-hugh-mcguire↩
3. Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia 202: Further Reflections.” Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. Web. 30 Oct. 2016. http://henryjenkins.org/2011/08/defining_transmedia_further_re.html↩
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