Is Digital Disruption in Publishing Inevitable Everywhere?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

North Americans experienced the digital disruption first. Elsewhere, publishers may not feel compelled to rush into a digital future.

By Edward Nawotka

binary digital globe

Last Tuesday and Wednesday I was in Sao Paolo, Brazil attending the second annual International Digital Book Congress (Congresso Internacional do Livro Digital), hosted by the Brazilian Book Chamber. The event drew more than 300 publishers from across the country to listen to talks — largely from North Americans — about the way the Brazilian publishing industry can prepare for the digital future. Some speakers, like Bob Stein formerly of the Institute for the Future of the Book and Sol Rosenberg of Copia, spoke about the phenomenon of social reading, others such as Rochelle Grayson, of BookRiff.com spoke about emerging platforms, while others, like Joe Craven of Sterling Publishing, offered more pragmatic advice such as the need to consider developing “verticals” for your business. All, for the most part, spoke about as if the digital transformation of publishing is an inevitability.

Nearly everyone agrees that it is, but are any more insulated than others from total digital disruption? Many countries (the US included) maintain strong print cultures with established business practices that have encumbered digital development. Japan, as discussed in today’s feature story, is just one. Germany is another.

In Brazil, for example, e-books have had a minor impact on the trade and, for the time being, the education markets. The culture is very much oriented towards print and publishers have found innovative ways of coping with the challenge of distributing books across the vast landscape and to people with a widely varied socio-economic status. It’s not perfect, but it works.

North Americans, who live in an almost entirely unregulated book market (no fixed book pricing, no intimidating VAT), experienced the digital disruption faster than other nations. Others are experiencing it at their own pace, but many do not feel a need to rush headlong into a digital future.

Couldn’t the same be said for certain types of publishers? At the Yale Publishing Course last Thursday, after several days of talk about e-books and disruption, an architecture and illustrated book publisher from Switzerland told me that while he was “experimenting” with digital publishing, he’d yet to see how it would be much of a benefit to him — or, and this is the important part — to his readers.┬áHis books were reference works, or collectibles, that don’t translate into the digital medium. Likewise, a Nigerian publisher noted that the lack of reliable electricity meant that schools were less likely to feel confident buying digital editions of textbooks, especially when there was a strong possibility of the power going out during the school day.

The factors the feed or stave digital publishing differ across the world. Yes, digitization has been an earthquake that has truly shaken up the publishing world. Some places feel only feel it as a minor tremor. Luckily, there’s still time to brace yourselves.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.