Content strategy: Reading behind the ‘death of the printed book’ proposition

Since the late ’90s, the ‘death of the printed book’ scenario has been front and centre of traditional publishing industry fears. So what has changed now that it’s 2011?

‘Digital’ is still a dirty word for ‘lifers’ in traditional publishing.

This isn’t specifically because it spells the death of publishing. Despite many of the ‘publishing apocalypse’ preachers of the digital age suggesting such, most traditional publishing companies have been researching and implementing ways to incorporate new consumer technologies into their forecasts and business models as early as 1995 (and even earlier in some cases).

It’s a dirty word because finding a coherent, uncomplicated way to ‘monitise’ and control digital content is something that is yet to be perfected and, for many, correctly understood.

Many traditional publishers, of magazines in particular, have found even better ways to diversify what used to be a static product – the printed page.

Static as it may be, the printed page has proven to be one of the most successful forms of knowledge transfer that our history has seen. Many experts now refer to this period waning since the growth in the internet, social networking and, as an additional result, user-generated content (put your hand up if you’ve heard ‘From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’ a thousands times?).

What we see with this progression in 2011 is a loss of control, which publishers who made money from producing and printing content, had over this world – instigated by Gutenberg, a content-sharing industry was born; its relevance is then torn down by Zuckerberg, who creates an information-sharing platform that changed the way people share and consume content.

Too much is perhaps made by ‘Zuckerberg’ being the final catalyst to this change – the world of content-sharing was changing long before social networks rose to prominence. For some academics, this progression was evolving long before the spread of the home PC (Marshall McLuhan’s theories on Convergence is a great resource on this). Many publishers did have the foresight to see what was happening – the problem was that very few people in this industry knew what to do with this knowledge.

Now that these platforms exist, traditional publishers are finding that development and diversification of their content has become more of a reality than any time since Gutenberg – a static product has turned into something that can be atomised, broken down to sell individually, have more interactivity, engaging readers physically as well as mentally (which Max Whitby and Touch Press in the USA has done wonderfully), and given new life to 500 years of commercial publishing.

Many studies have been conducted to show that digital hasn’t caused the death of the printed page – a recent study in Australia by Tain and Martin, entitled ‘Digital Technologies for Book Publishing’ (Publishing Research Quarterly, 2010) insists that, despite claims that the emergence of new publishing paradigms brought with them the “mass disruption of markets and disintermediation of value chains”, there has been little evidence of vastly innovative business models being developed as much as the “hybridization of traditional and emerging forms”.

This ‘hybridization’ is what many up-to-date ‘traditional’ publishers have focused on (my own employer Lonely Planet has also been having a great go at it as well) and appear to be making great gains.

So how can traditional publishers harness this power and not lose the ‘control’ that they’ve asserted in the digital content arena?

My research – Digital content and the rise of the ‘device’: What does the Dalton-Pierce Digital Disruption Quotient (DPDDQ) tell us about the evolution of ‘paid’ digital content consumption in the current Australian electronic publishing environment? – will hopefully open this discussion to greater scrutiny.


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