By Todd Sattersten
Everyone knows the past year has been one of great change for the publishing industry, but at the same time there is a growing sense of comfort. It feels like things are starting to work themselves out. Distribution of electronic books now has an ecosystem of devices and distribution points. Readers have actively adopted to new technologies. And any graph of e-book sales over the last four years makes book publishing look like a high tech growth business.
For those who attended (and listened closely) the talks at TOC Frankfurt, the proper feeling should be discomfort. Each presentation and panel brought to light the growing number of paradoxes these technological disruptions have created, and suggest a whole new and different set of problems that are only beginning to be understood.
Andrew Savikas, VP of Digital Initiatives at O’Reilly Media and program chair for the event, showed a graph during his presentation displaying print revenue alongside the e-book revenue for book sales on www.oreilly.com. The surprise wasn’t the hockey shaped growth curve in digital, but rather the growth, albeit small, in physical books, a trend he attributed to, paradoxically, the massive growth in e-books. Weren’t e-books suppose to cannibalize print books?
Another whole set of conflicts appropriate to the global venue of the Frankfurt Book Fair came from Professor Pablo Francisco Arrieta and the experiences in his home country of Columbia. Prior to the introduction of the iPad, there was no e-reader available to him without buying a plane ticket to go buy one in the US. Apple’s tablet computer changed that by introducing the product only four days after the US launch and at the same price as the American counterpart, both firsts for that market. Now, the problem is content. Rights issues and availability of Spanish language editions hinders Arrieta’s use of the device and highlights the brewing trouble ahead for subsidiary rights in a digital world.
And speaking of trouble, longtime media author and speaker Doug Rushkoff will likely get the most press for saying that publishing could get by with only 40% of the people they have working in the business now, but the primary message of his talk that deserves the most attention. His argument was that to understand media you have to understand how it works, and with computers more and more at the center of the media universe, we often come to the wrong conclusion about what will happen because we literally don’t know computers work, having never learned to program them.
One attendee noted to me, “I haven’t really heard anything new.” I think he’s right. The stories are likely getting repetitive. We all know that digital is growing and that rights are complicated.
But the fact that the stories are getting repetitive is also what’s making us more comfortable. Digital is no longer quite the disruptive, scary space it was several years ago.
The future, as it dawns upon us, is solving the problems that seemed so tough, complicated only a few years ago. What we now require is the insight and inventiveness to make the most of the opportunity technology affords us.