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The Digital Revolution: Publishing in the Twenty-First Century

Historically, books and music have readily exchanged stylistic inventions – the latter glaringly stealing from the former for narrative, conceptual and aesthetic direction in pop since the 1960s. Perhaps on account of this, and considering its performative and ephemeral dimensions and base populist overtones, music published for the mass market has been thought of as less serious than literature, and more mutable: to the chagrin of cultural studies departments everywhere.

Now, however, in the words of Elizabeth Weiss, of Allen & Unwin, the music industry provides the ‘salutary example’ of how publishers must address new public demand for digital books, journals and newspapers created by the arrival of e-readers such as the Kindle, Ipad and ‘smart phones’; just as music was forced to adapt to the advent of MP3 technology and players many years ago. As record companies fretted and experimented by turns, so now local books publishers contemplate a new life in altered states.

If The Digital Revolution: Publishing in the Twenty-First Century symposium, organised by the Australia Council for the Arts and Australian Publishers Association (the State Library of Victoria, 15 February, to be repeated in Sydney on the 17th) started as a warning of the monumental digital wave making its way from overseas to local publishing, by its end the meeting of one hundred organisations was awed less by fear than by the opportunities presented by e-books, e-readers, DRM (Digital Rights Management) and metadata, ‘dispersed digital marketing’ strategies and other futuristic terminology and concepts.

Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research opened proceedings with a reminder that there is ‘no point circling the wagons’ in regards to digital publishing, given the prediction that by 2020 thirty per cent of Australia’s book market will be electronic. Senator Carr cited the lesson of the seventeenth-century’s ‘penmen’, those Luddite hand-copyists of the first moveable type, to enforce his plain message that no one in publishing can expect to ‘build a future on nostalgia’.

In a notable presentation, Stephen Page, CEO of Faber and Faber (UK), dispelled perhaps the gravest fear surrounding the digital publishing conversation: that e-books will entirely replace print books. As with the music industry, he said, digital versions complement print versions and actually help on-sell them. Digitisation enlivens the reading community by fostering dialogue about books online and at events promoted online, and also triggers new-found fetishes for deluxe, hard-cover, limited run editions. He instanced the success of the Faber Finds, print-on-demand editions of backlist titles. Almost 1000 of these will soon be available.

Michael Tamblyn, of Kobo Inc. (Canada), went on to banish further scepticism regarding e-books: namely that it is only the very young who are interested in them, and that digital editions are too readily available to build a business on. Kobo Inc.’s extensive research into the American market found that the average e-book reader is between thirty-five and fifty-five years old, and that she (fifty-five percent) or he (forty-five per cent) values speedy access to titles above the cost-savings involved. Tamblyn enforced his point with an astonishing graph indicating that most e-book sales in the United States occur late at night when regular bookstores are closed.

All this is further encouragement, if we needed it, to develop an electronic edition of ABR. How much it will cost, where it will be available and in which forms will be moot until the transition described by Richard Charkin, Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing (UK), as a ‘ten-person chess game, in which the rules are unknown and players wear sacks on their heads’ becomes clearer. Certain it is though that e-ABR is on the way – to complement the print edition.

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