Digital Publishing in the Developing World: Imitation or Autonomous Evolution?

In Growth Markets by Octavio Kulesz

Many assume that the digital models that work in the United States and Europe can easily be applied to China, Latin America, and elsewhere in the developing world. This could not be more wrong, argues a new study “Digital Publishing in Developing Countries,” carried out by Octavio Kulesz in October 2010, and commissioned by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, with the support of the Prince Claus Foundation. The report covers developments in Latin America, the Arab World, Sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, India and China. Here, we offer the introduction to the report, which has been made available online this week and can be read free of charge in Spanish, French and English.

octavio kulesz

Octavio Kulesz

By Octavio Kulesz, Editorial Teseo and Digital Minds Network

In the last 15 years, the digital revolution has thoroughly modified the way in which cultural assets are produced and distributed. Music was probably the first industry affected, but the impact has now reached all sectors, and in particular the book world. Indeed, e-books, audio books, print on demand, virtual stores and the expansion of cellular phones have profoundly transformed the means of circulating texts.

Digital publishing models that work in the United States and Europe cannot always be applied to China, Latin America and the developing world.

As is well known, there are marked contrasts in the assimilation of these technologies from region to region. The industrialized nations –- in particular the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and South Korea –- have access to extremely efficient Internet services and plentiful human resources. Their firms therefore enjoy a considerable margin for action when it comes to testing out hardware, software and new digital publishing business models, which means that companies like AmazonAppleGoogle or Sony are taken as references in the media and at professional events all over the world. Now, it is clear that in the case of countries from the South, infrastructure limitations and low rates of human development hinder the advancement of electronic publishing such as it is known in more advanced regions. And certainly what little news that comes out about digital publishing in the developing world is usually related to incursions undertaken by those same actors from the North.

Thus, the conclusion reached in numerous articles and international conferences is that, in order to promote electronic publishing, the countries of the South have no choice other than to await the arrival of successful models from the North. However, this assumption is highly objectionable. For a start, so far it has not proven easy to identify a “successful system” of digital publishing, even in advanced countries; indeed, the sales figures for publications through Amazon’s Kindle Store or Apple’s iBooks are not widely available, which prevents us from knowing the extent to which in themselves these publishing platforms constitute as lucrative a model as is publicized. In fact, the constant changes in setting sale prices, defining formats and applying digital rights management (DRM) –- or not –- show that even the major players are still feeling their way.

Secondly, we must ask ourselves how useful it would be to reproduce the prototypes from the North in the South, as in addition to the disparities in infrastructure, there are also enormous cultural, linguistic and even religious differences. Let’s not forget that digital models represent more than just a tool: with a notable dose of egocentrism contained in its very name and the attraction produced by a logo that refers, amongst other things, to biblical sin, an iPad may well captivate a young Westerner educated in a particular tradition, but it won’t have the same effect on someone from India or the Cameroon. And, as we will point out later, the experience of reading from the screen of a cell phone means something very different to a Chinese user, for example, than it might do to a European one, due to the qualitative difference in the characters used in each case. Of course, a company like Apple will certainly find a highly profitable niche among the most affluent classes in developing countries, since the cultural and consumption patterns of these sectors merely imitate those of the North. But the interesting thing would be to find out what digital models might be a hit not just with the wealthiest 20% of the citizens of developing countries, but with the rest of the inhabitants, that is to say with the bulk of humanity.

Thirdly, given the enormous population, and above all the accelerated economic growth observed in many countries of the South, it is hard to believe that the developing world isn’t making its own contribution to the electronic age. In addition to the countless IT service providers in India and hardware manufacturers in China that support the Western platforms from behind the scenes, there are original and innovative digital publishing projects being carried out at this very moment in the South -– local platforms that will one day be able to compete with foreign ones. In fact, some of these ventures are so dynamic that instead of debating who will be the future Apple of China or the Amazon of South Africa, perhaps we will soon be asking ourselves who will be the Shanda of the US or the m4Lit of the UK.

A Matter of Enormous Significance

The development of electronic publishing in the South proves therefore to be a topic that is in itself worthy of discussion in global forums. But, more importantly still, it constitutes an absolutely vital issue for developing countries themselves.

On the one hand, according to the observations of the main actors involved, many of the typical obstacles of publishing in countries of the South can be overcome by incorporating digital technology into the book chain. Indeed, if the Internet connection tends to be defective in these regions, then the infrastructure of the book sector –- distribution, retail sales and printing -– is even worse. In some cases, then, certain technologies can be employed to help skip the “Gutenberg stage” and work directly in digital form by making use of the equipment already available.

Likewise, the electronic solutions that certain countries of the South have implemented to overcome their problems of content distribution can also serve as a model for others, thus facilitating South–South knowledge and technology transfer. For example, the rich prospects for mobile phones in India, China and South Africa represent a fruitful precedent for the Maghreb and the Middle East.

Lastly, the rapid economic growth experienced by many nations in Latin America, Asia and Africa has increased the funds states have available to them to invest in infrastructure, training and research and development (R&D). Sooner or later, these countries will have to ask themselves what kind of digital publishing highways they must build and they will be faced with two very different options: a) financing the installation of platforms designed in the North; b) investing according to the concrete needs, expectations and potentialities of local authors, readers and entrepreneurs. Whatever the decision of each country may be, the long term impact will be immense.

Note: For the sake of expediency, we have eliminated the footnotes, which can be found in the original text.

READ: The full report online for free in SpanishFrench and English.

DISCUSS: Will Digital Reading Transform the Developing World?

About the Author

Octavio Kulesz