Digital Directions: Addressing The Human Element of Digital Change

Andrew Brenneman, founder of Finitiv.

People, not technology, will shape your publishing company's trajectory toward a bright digital future.

Ironically enough, success in digital publishing has more to do with people than machines. Digital publishing requires publishing houses and their partners to work in materially different ways. Digital publishing is not merely delivering an EPUB file along with a print-ready PDF. Successful initiatives require the development of new skills, processes and business practices. Publishers that successfully execute these changes will be able to take advantage of the unique characteristics of digital, and bring new value to the marketplace.

What are some of the challenges that must be overcome by the intervention of the human element? A few that come to mind include:

The end of “print-first.” “Print-first” is an approach to cross-platform publishing in which all digital delivery formats are derivatives of the print product. The book is first composed and optimized for the paper page, then digital outputs (such as e­books) are produced by wrestling the print product into a digital delivery format. This is hardly an optimized approach since “p-books” and e­books are distinct in some fundamental ways, such as their use and disuse of page numbers, internal and external hyperlinks and so on. Yet, since “print-first” introduces the least disruption to publishers and their service providers, it has become a standard, though strategically unattractive, practice.

Untangling digital rights. The issue of digital rights represents a significant hurdle for many publishers. The Holy Grail of magically “digitizing the backlist” is often impeded by a lack of digital rights clauses in contracts pertaining to older titles. A secondary issue is the inclusion in print titles of one-time-use artwork that has not been cleared for digital delivery. This issue is made even more challenging by the fact that modes of delivery that the publisher may use in the future may not even exist today.

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  • John Harnish

    So very true and well expressed observations, Andrew, and I’d like to add that I saw some of these same transition challenges occur more than a half a century ago when the centuries old letterpresses were replaced by more cost-effective offset presses. There was fear with all the make-ready employees and letterpress operators regarding the loss of jobs. There was greed with publishers seeing increased profits from lower printing costs—but alas, except within the industry, it went unnoticed that the retail price to the consumer remained the same.

    Digial printing also caused transitional problems at the start of this century. Printed books that once took months to produce via offset could be printed and put into the distribution channels in less than a week. I dare say the offset make-ready process benefitted from digital methodologies, so there doesn’t appear to be as much strife as there was when letterpresses were pushed out the door.

    All of my recently published work is only available as ebooks. Yes, I could easily do pbook versions, but frankly “born-digital” is faster, less hassle, and more cost-effective. Yes, with ebooks some of the design nuances are gone, and I admit it took a bit of an effort to break my habit of shamelessly killing off “widows and orphans.”

    Perhaps the greatest transition is the role-reversal between the authors and publishers. Much of the infrastructure controlled by publishers is slowly crumbling away, but the newly empowered author’s control over the content is omnipotent. Without fresh content there’s nothing for publishers to publish. Authors are discovering they don’t need a publisher to publish ebooks through direct publishing programs.

    Sadly greedy “big six” publishers are pricing their ebooks higher than what the market will bear. Ebook consumers are well aware of the production cost difference between pbooks and ebooks. Indeed there’s a rightful reluctance by consumers to pay an inflated price to support a decaying empire. Evolving new authors, with wordsmithing talents to write outside of the box, are giving the stables of famous, established name authors a run for the ebook money.

    Once it was said, “The medium is the message” or was it “the message is the medium”??? In the born-digital age of publishing both are true. The new breed of digitally-born authors enjoys a greater expanse of creativity because they produce the message and control the delivery medium. Gone are the editorial lines drawn in the sand defining the flavor, size and shape of the box, and gone too are the influences of the biased gatekeepers and foretelling bean-counter who frequently foretold wrongly.

    The publishing industry is in a transitional turmoil, and we do indeed publish in interesting digital times.

    Enjoy often… John

  • Madhu Thota

    Great article – agree with most…except "Laziness" and "Greed" as the impediments. The arguments are true; having said that, industriousness and steering away from short term gains is necessary but not sufficient for a successful transition. How do you make this happen in an environment of "Everyone is already working at full capacity".

    Leadership, Planning and Prioritization are just as critical for a successful execution.

  • Vel

    Right, we have to invest more in education and less in industrial deserts.