Just as the print industry belabored over the CTP (computer-to-plate) dilemma for more than a decade, e-book debates will undoubtedly continue to wage for years. Indeed, the births of these two phenomena mimic one another in several ways.
The evolution of a revolution
As we look back, the dawn of CTP led to a great deal of speculation on the print producer's part. Many openly scoffed at CTP's validity; others simply avoided the topic, as if skirting its discussion would deny its very existence. It took several years—and the growing support of industry standards groups—to bolster an acknow-ledgement that CTP was our destiny.
The realization became more poignant as those around us took the proverbial plunge, and we started to test the waters. Some print segments were faster to adopt CTP than others, particularly those with pressures to compress cycle time and meet print deadlines (weekly publications and catalogs, mostly). Their vendors, expecting they'd need special incentives to sell customers on CTP, swiftly began to develop infrastructures that supported digital asset management, file preparation, database management and versioning.
Other segments—and in many cases, rightfully so—took a more cautious approach to CTP, choosing to stick with tried-and-true film. Was film really tried and true?
Fickle print producers put printers in the awkward position of supporting both analog and digital workflows. Some printers who went exclusively CTP lost customers because of it. Soon, the precarious balance between analog proponents and those who were willing to service them fell off-kilter, but eventually, we overcame our fears.
A few years since the e-book big-bang
The e-book market seems to be entering its second-phase evolution. At a ripe-old age of less than a decade, e-books appear to be making a downward turn. With the dissolution of some of the mystery that surrounds the market, the hype has softened. Mention e-books to a fellow publisher, and they probably won't balk at the term. You no longer find many publishers huddled in the corner of trade show halls, whispering disdainful things like, "Do you know who's doing e-books now?"
We're over the initial hype, but we've yet to grasp the long-term implications.
Calm before the next storm
In the aftermath of the recent dot-com fallout, e-books have quieted. Several members of the trade press reported how notably "non-e" BookExpo America was in the spring. Uncertainty for large distributors like Yahoo!, and Amazon.com trickles down to the e-publishers, while trepidation stems from the nerve-racking wait of the Random House v. Rosetta Books case. Yet, publishers are still producing e-titles (many of which are complements to some companion print product, mind you). And mirroring CTP's adoption, e-books remain almost exclusively popular in certain segments, with education putting in the strongest showing to date. But also like CTP, pundits are committed to e-viability, standing tall in their assertion that e-books will eventually steal significant market share from print.
It's just too darned early to tell, but the e-book outlook doesn't look inclement by any means, despite the recent slowing pace. While e-reading may not have reached the pinnacle of consumer affection, it's getting better.
And finally, like CTP, industry standards groups have gathered in hopes of creating process and formatting consensus. Their lead is ours to follow.
What happened with CTP?
These days, fewer and fewer printers are proud and eager to raise their hands to show they're a film-only shop. Indeed, content creators got the better end of the deal. While CTP meant vast capital investments, staff retraining and even layoffs for the printers, in many cases, for the book publisher, it hasn't forced a profound difference in the way we produce. This, too, is subject to change.
Like magazine and catalog publishers before you, it's feasible to think that you will work in an all-digital, standards-adhering workflow that will call for you to become your own design, publishing and prepress supplier. Of course, this largely depends on the relationships you've built with your suppliers, how technologically progressive they are and how willing your publishing house is to make an investment in the tools you'll need to create and produce bullet-proof print- (and, yes, e-book) ready files.
Commitments and costs
CTP's eventual adoption made equipment manufacturers and software developers sit up and take notice of publishers'day-to-day needs. They began to see the purpose of serving an upstream market, finally able to reach content creators with their tools and technological solutions.
And the content creators, well, we were pretty jazzed, too (or at least some of us were) to finally get to cut out film costs and stripping charges, gladly exchanging these costs for those of a different nature—file transfer services, digital proofers and the like. And as they began to notice the revenue potential of tapping into us, they began to develop new tools just for us, at a price point that made in-house design to prepress a viable option. The same will be said of the e-book space, as the cost of content conversion and management tools decrease and consumer-acceptable price-point issues and marketing strategies are ironed out. In discovering the market's limits, we are beginning to also discover its possibilities.
CTP has had a profound effect on the print world. It opened the doors to new publishing channels and enabled us to create more high-tech, streamlined and environmentally friendly workflows. In a few cases, it's even lived up to its promise of condensing cycle time and cutting costs. CTP did change the landscape. It changed it more quickly for some than for others. But it's touched the lives of almost everyone, by now. E-books will change our landscape, too.
A revolution in the making
During a recent discussion of the e-book marketplace, a colleague recently noted: We've had more than 400 years to perfect print. We've only had four years to perfect the e-book. Give it time. We know from our past, major technological wave takes time to evolve. And during the course of that evolution, you can predict that there will be market upswings and downturns. There will be waxing and waning. And eventually, that technology will either sink or soar.
Keep an open mind to your future—and the future of the mature book publishing industry—and be prepared to modify operations to accommodate the tumultuous times of a would-be revolution in the making.
-Gretchen A. Kirby