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Digital: the here and now

There is a residual perception in publishing that digital is just another market, and therefore it can be contained and dealt with by specialists without greatly affecting the way things work. That assumption sits nicely with the idea that the market will eventually “settle down” and “come clear”, and this is when real inroads will be made by publishing into the digital marketplace.

You can find traces of this assumption everywhere, but it’s most obvious in the corporate structures which make “digital” a separate thing from “editorial”, and in the de facto decision over the past four years to leave digital innovation to the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple.

The industry seems very content to be a follower. It’s not a strategy that is working very well, but—you can almost hear the voice of publishing’s darker side whisper—maybe that’s just because we haven’t tried it for long enough.

Digital is not something you can lock up like an unruly cat. It’s not a new animal in our ecosystem, it’s a new substrate.

A substrate, in biology, is the surface on which an organism lives and grows. It may be soil, or a rock, or even another organism. Digital technology has woven itself into the substrate on which not only publishing but everything else in the developed world lives. It is so remarkably adaptable and useful that it is even now taking root in poor regions of Africa, where an SMS-based service called iCow will help find a vet, prompt farmers on best practice, and log milk production. The substrate is literally what everything else rests on, what we live on. You can’t segregate digital any more than a seabird can avoid water.
So the fundamental question the industry needs to ask—that each imprint, each house, each editor and c.e.o. needs to ask—is not “how do we use digital?” but rather “how should we be changed by digital?”

The first answers are simple: be more open, communicate directly: create the experience, as Clark Kokich of Razorfish told Forbes this week. Get to know your customers and let them get to know you—an imprint is the expression of taste: once you can say clearly what it is, you’ll acquire a loyal audience for it. The next tier is more challenging—things like “infrastructure as a service”—and harnessing the power of big data. The key is that you just have to start doing it—digital culture is an iterative design culture. You won’t know what to do until you begin, and the more you let the substrate shape what you do rather than try to force it into shapes you recognise, the more you’ll know about what happens next. (And the less you’ll be bruised by it.) That decision in itself becomes an advantage, because the more distinct you become in the right way, the less others can compete with you. Ask Apple.

In sum: the substrate is digital. The pace of change will continue to accelerate. There is no “settle down” period, no comfy plateau where everything goes back to how it was. There’s only this, and publishing can choose to be very good at it, or to suffer the fate of any organism when it does not adapt to changes in its environment.

Read the full blog on FutureBook.

Nick Harkaway is the author of Angelmaker (WM Heinemann) and The Blind Giant (John Murray) (@harkaway)

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The publishing industry has always been quaint and Dickensian, a gathering of gentlemen, now dominated by women who have taken over every crevice of the industry, simply because 'men don't read'.

It was not always so of course, each development in print opened up new markets and Dicken's Blackwood's magazine progressed in stages to Penguin and the colour supplements, the latter a result of gravure technology, now long since disappeared.

It's almost impossible to envisage what people did back in the mid nineteenth century for entertainment. Sing, dance, get drunk, have sex, go to the variety show or if you were well heeled, play the piano. That's about about it, so reading a Dickens novel was cutting edge.

Today men watch football or play Halo on a playstation, immersed in the action, which isn't simply rolling forward to the dictates of the author. They can also play football or Fomula One racing on their Xbox. After watching TV and a video, how many hours in the day are there left to read?

Reading has become a use of dead time, usually on the commute and like Pinterest.com it has also become an almost exclusively female pursuit. However it too is going digital and it's not a question of living side by side with print. I t's winner takes all and there is no doubt about the loser. There is no containing this, a digital read is a far more comfortable read and so much more economic. From downloading and storing a vast library without going anywhere, to being able to search details and change the size of type. Digital also allows colour at no cost and even video. Digital connects to digital and to consumers around the world with no barriers, transport, warehousing or retail outlets. Digital is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire publishing and printing industry. Everyday the thread gets thiner and it is only a question of tie before the blade drops like Madame Guillotine.

http://www.darcyblaze.com/

http://www.darcyblaze.com/

The publishing industry has always been quaint and Dickensian, a gathering of gentlemen, now dominated by women who have taken over every crevice of the industry, simply because 'men don't read'.

It was not always so of course, each development in print opened up new markets and Dicken's Blackwood's magazine progressed in stages to Penguin and the colour supplements, the latter a result of gravure technology, now long since disappeared.

It's almost impossible to envisage what people did back in the mid nineteenth century for entertainment. Sing, dance, get drunk, have sex, go to the variety show or if you were well heeled, play the piano. That's about about it, so reading a Dickens novel was cutting edge.

Today men watch football or play Halo on a playstation, immersed in the action, which isn't simply rolling forward to the dictates of the author. They can also play football or Fomula One racing on their Xbox. After watching TV and a video, how many hours in the day are there left to read?

Reading has become a use of dead time, usually on the commute and like Pinterest.com it has also become an almost exclusively female pursuit. However it too is going digital and it's not a question of living side by side with print. I t's winner takes all and there is no doubt about the loser. There is no containing this, a digital read is a far more comfortable read and so much more economic. From downloading and storing a vast library without going anywhere, to being able to search details and change the size of type. Digital also allows colour at no cost and even video. Digital connects to digital and to consumers around the world with no barriers, transport, warehousing or retail outlets. Digital is the Sword of Damocles hanging over the entire publishing and printing industry. Everyday the thread gets thiner and it is only a question of tie before the blade drops like Madame Guillotine.

http://www.darcyblaze.com/

http://www.darcyblaze.com/