Tag Archives: digital publishing

Past – Future

One key aspect about celebrating “Earth Day” is a call for people to reduce their carbon footprint.  That includes recycling and either utilizing as few natural resources as possible, or wisely using what we have.  People are encouraged, for example, to “think green and keep it on the screen;” that is, not wasting paper to print something.  The “Earth Day” movement began in California, so it was interesting to see The Los Angeles Times’ 17th Annual Book Festival, held at the University of Southern California on April 22, practically celebrate the printed book.  The festival took an interesting approach to the future of publishing with its panel, “Future Books: Media in the Digital Age.”  It looked to the past to help gauge the practicality of what many see as the growing acceptance of e-books.

Moderator Holly Willis, Director of Academic Programs at the USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy; Anne Balsamo, professor at USC’s Annenberg & School of Cinematic Arts and Director of Learning, Annenberg Innovation Lab; Steve Anderson, Assistant Professor of Interactive Media at USC’s School of Cinema-Television and Associate Editor of the journal Vectors; and Catherine Quinlan, Dean of USC Libraries, collectively offered dialogue on the dual excitement and anxiety surrounding the future of reading.  But, they centered mostly on the past.

Balsamo showcased examples from her experience developing the interactive museum exhibit “XFR: Experiments in the Future of Reading” created by the group RED (Research on Experimental Documents) at Xerox PARC in the late 1990’s.  Accessible through the Designing Culture website, many of these provided a dose of retrospective humor, like the future-from-the-past vision of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil: XFR’s Tilting Tables, for example, or the Reading Eye Dog, which “translated” the printed page, and as Balsamo mentioned, was designed as a dog since interacting with a canine seemed markedly superior to interacting with a humanoid robot.  (Sometimes, people seem to be able to relate better to dogs than other humans.)

Anderson scanned some of the new media from his book and website Technologies of History, in particular in his project “Technologies of History Interactive,” a composite of experimental film, television, video games and digital media that explores how we relate to the historical events of our lives.

Quinlan closed the panel with a discussion of the library’s challenge in storing, preserving and ensuring access to digital media, such as Anderson’s project.  As she mentioned, “the more recent the medium, the more quickly it rots.”

This may seem like typical California tree-hugging experimentation, but I can see the greater purpose.  You can’t fully grasp your future unless you thoroughly understand your past.  New technologies are great, but only within the context of the people who use them.  People loathed, even feared computers a generation ago and scoffed at Bill Gates’ outrageous idea to make them personal and intimate by putting one in every home.  Even in the early 1990’s, few could have imagined how Microsoft and the Internet would change the American landscape.  Today, few people have e-readers, including me.  But, just a decade ago the concept of reading a book from a computer screen on your lap sounded as ridiculous as the personal computer did 20 years earlier.  We’ll see where all that ambition takes us in the ensuing decade.

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Creative Destruction

Martin Levin spent four decades in the publishing industry, before retiring and – at the age of 61 – immediately decided to attend law school.  He graduated from the New York School of Law 4 years later and found a new career with Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman in New York City.  But, he’s obviously more than a little qualified to voice an opinion on the state of publishing in America today.  In this piece, he expresses his concerns for publishing in the face of such growing enterprises as Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft.  He dubs the new wave in technology “creative destruction,” a process that has enabled “larger, well established, well financed, entrepreneurial publishers to acquire independent publishers.”  In a manner similar to how the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans controls the bulk of the nation’s financial assets, 20 publishers now control some 80% of publishing revenue in the United States.

Levin is channeling the late Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-born economist and political scientist who introduced the world to his theory of “creative destruction” in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.  Unlike stereotypical anti-capitalists who believed capitalism would be destroyed by its enemies, Schumpeter believed that it would be undermined by its own successes; that it would create a class of elitists who make their living by attacking the same system of private property and freedom necessary for the very survival of those elitists.

Levin applies Schumpeter’s theory to recent events in the publishing industry.

Last year Harper Collins, already the owner of a major religious publisher, Zondervan, acquired its significant competitor, Thomas Nelson, for $200 million.  Ironically in 2006, Intermedia had paid $473 million for Nelson.

Around the same time, Barnes & Noble decided to put its Sterling Publishing Company on the market for $115 million, so it could concentrate on its e-book reader, the Nook.  Sterling had a backlist of more than 5,000 titles and revenues close to $100 million.  But, no one was interested.  Sterling lost its CEO and 3 other executives.  B&N still owns it, perhaps realizing only now that what had been a truly valuable asset is now a liability.

Just this past March, John Wiley and Sons, original publishers of Moby Dick, announced it would explore the sale of its print and digital assets that if felt were no longer in line with the company’s long term strategies.  Wiley had carefully procured the targeted assets, many of which had been freestanding companies.  They included CliffsNotes and Webster’s New World Dictionary.  At the same time, Wiley had acquired a workplace learning solutions company, Inscape Holdings, for $85 million.  They then bought another digital publisher, Structure, making it clear that they see their future in technology.

Also last year, Bloomberg, a global business and financial news corporation, bought BNA, the 19th largest publisher in the U.S.  BNA specializes in publishing for business, legal and government professionals.  Thus, the union creates a new monolithic entity, apparent in the $990 million cash payment Bloomberg made to shareholder employees.  That’s roughly $600,000 for each shareholder.

In 2008, Zagat, publisher of a survey directory for diners, placed itself on the market for $200 million, then withdrew its offer when no takers arose.  Three years later Zagat finally found the appropriate buyer – Google, which paid $161 million.  Zagat’s directory will now join Google’s other online programs, such as Google Maps.

With such mega-mergers in mind, Levin asks, “is it within reason that the future buyers of publishers will be a non-conventional buyer?  And if so, is it hard to speculate about list of potential buyers who may be interested in acquiring book publishing companies?”

Mergers and acquisitions was a popular trend in the financial services industry throughout most of the 1990’s.  It came on the heels of the disastrous savings and loan collapse.  Banks grew bigger, with tentacles reaching across the country and across the globe; an endeavor some saw as ultimately beneficial to the consumer.  But, with the recent housing market catastrophe, which was tied directly to the banking industry, the entire concept of a company growing larger just for the sake of it is questionable.

As for Amazon, Levin points out the obvious: it led the way in the e-book market with its Kindle device and it is now a full-fledged publisher, as well as a top book distributor.  Microsoft is close behind, and Facebook is now maturing along with its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

Everyone in the publishing industry is asking what the future look like.  It’s the million- (or billion) dollar question.  Some smile at the prospects, seeing nothing but a bright, infinite horizon.  Others squirm at the thought of a handful of publishing titans deciding what writers should be published and therefore, what consumers should read.  It could mean that a small number of powerful people will decide what information is released and when.  I have to admit I have my own qualms at such a future.  If the banking and housing industry crises are any indication, it doesn’t look that bright.  I’m not clairvoyant and I’m not among the monied elite, so I’ll just wait – and keep writing like the rest of us.

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Amazon’s Trojan Horse

Count Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, among Amazon’s detractors.  In an essay on Paid Content last month, Milligan suggests that the publishing and book distribution giant’s business practices may pose a threat to American intellectual freedom.  He highlights the recent dispute between Amazon and the Independent Publishers Group over Kindle versions of some 5,000 titles IPG had in stock.  IPG refused to bow to Amazon’s demands for better contract terms.  It may be the first volley in a long battle to unseat Amazon’s increasing domination of the publishing world.  IPG is second to Amazon in book distribution.

“Amazon’s recent actions have already cut the sales of the small press I run by 40 percent.  Jeff Bezos could not care less,” Milligan claims in his editorial, speaking of Amazon’s CEO.  He lambastes Amazon’s efforts since 2009 to engage in charity by giving fairly large grants “to nonprofit organizations involved in literature and literacy.”  But, there is no application process; Amazon just asks for nominations.  Amazon says upfront that it’s looking for “innovative groups with a proven track record of success; an ability to work effectively with us to execute on the organization’s goals, including appropriate public outreach; and an established presence and voice in the publishing community.”  So far, these grants have appeared on the doorsteps of otherwise unsuspecting organizations.

Wings Press is a for-profit business and therefore, not eligible for grants – from anyone.  If Milligan sounds bitter, it’s understandable.  He publishes mostly poetry, a literary art form that’s often ignored by mainstream publishing houses.  If making a living from writing novels is difficult, poets embody the true spirit of the starving artist!  But, Milligan publishes works based primarily on its literary merits, not just to make money.  As a major corporation, Amazon, on the other hand, clearly is out to make a profit.  Offering “grant” money to charitable entities is a noble endeavor, but not if the giver is directing profits back to themselves.  Thus, is Amazon really just giving a proverbial Trojan horse?  It may be a matter of interpretation.  Read the rest of Milligan’s essay and decide for yourself.

Additional source.

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The Missing 20th Century: How Copyright Protection Makes Books Vanish

This chart shows a distribution of 2500 newly printed fiction books selected at random from Amazon’s warehouses.

This is an interesting graph I saw on Linked In today.  Paul Heald, a law professor at the University of Illinois, was curious how copyrights apply to older works of literature in the new digital age.  In other words, if an outfit like Amazon publishes a long out-of-print book in digital format, can the author – or his or her heirs – claim copyright infringement?  In a speech he gave to the University of Canterbury on March 16, Heald pointed out that most books published since 1923 have copyrights.  But, he also noted that there are just as many books with copyrights in the first decade of the 21st century as there were in the decade from 1910 to 1920.  It’s a significant observation with a global impact, considering how the publishing industry is moving more and more towards digital formats.  As always, it seems standard laws can’t keep up with technological advances.



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