Digital Dilemmas

Everyone agrees on one thing when it comes to the future of digital publishing. No one agrees.

Andrew Benneman, manager of the Digital Media Group of Chicago University Press (CUP), bravely lays out some thoughts on how publishers should think about their electronic future in a “free” webinar. (It’s free in that while it won’t cost you hard, cold dinaro, you will have to fork over your contact information.) If you have fifty-six minutes to spare, you can see the slideshow “Developing a Digital Distribution Strategy” with voiceover by Andrew here.

These were some of the highlights I took away.

* Don’t Panic but Don’t Dawdle. “The tendency is to over-estimate the degree of change in the short-term and under-estimate the degree of change in the long-term.” These are indeed words to the wise. Don’t rush into the latest technology or strategy or device. But do have a measured, deliberate plan and carry it out. Change is coming, but we have time.

* One Size Does Not Fit All. Not all books or all types of books need the same treatment. CUP has three main segments: trade, scholarly and reference. For trade, they have no digital strategy at all. In reference, they have developed a proprietary online subscription strategy for The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). For scholarly works, they are selling ebooks through distribution partners. Each publisher probably needs to have different electronic strategies for different segments of their list.

* Don’t Do It Yourself. Going direct to consumers with your electronic product seems like a great idea. You cut out the middle guys. You leverage your understanding of your product and the market. You develop a community around your publishing vision. The problem is that customers who want, say, reference works on the Bible don’t just want access to your reference works. They want access through a single portal to everyone’s stuff. Only if you have a monopoly on a certain kind of product or information (very rare) might it work for you to go alone (which is apparently what CUP thought about putting the CMS online). Therefore, generally you will want to partner with those who distribute digitally from a wide variety of sources.

* Beware the Eight-Hundred-Pound Gorilla. The big search engines are really big. They can swallow entire continents without bothering to chew. They have the heft to create more content than everyone else combined and leave publishers eating their dust. Each publisher needs to carefully measure both how they should cooperate with search engines and how they can maintain a distinct role in the value chain.

* Think Dynamic, Not Fixed. PDF is easy to use, low cost, stable, standard and mature in the market. But presentation (design) is fixed, it’s not dynamic and can’t integrate with other applications. Andrew thinks that, because of these drawbacks, over the next three to five years we will see a shift away from PDF toward XML. Devices like Kindle will push this change forward.

But, to return to where he began, don’t panic. There is time. Make a plan. Then work your plan.