Digital First: Publishing for multiple outputs

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Publishers have adopted a Digital First strategy for more than 20 years now. When they started receiving MS Word files from authors and used those files as a starting point for the editorial and production process, they virtually adopted a Digital First strategy. However, until now the aim of the publishers has been to reach the best quality and standard for the books they publish, in print. Since the increase of the usage of ebook with the launch of e-readers, publishers have been thriving to find ways to convert the print editions of their books into ebooks. Ebooks have been usually considered as a ‘secondary’ format, with print keeping its position as the ‘primary’ format. It’s not unreasonable. Even today the majority of a publisher’s sales arise from the print editions of their books, with ebooks having a modest share of 5-10% of the market. Publishers have a large database of the backlist, usually in the format of PDF files if they are lucky; but they also have a backlist of titles in various obsolete formats: They have them on paper, or even in some occasions on printing plates.

However, the market trends are changing. The ebook sales are growing and it wouldn’t be surprising if the ebook sales overtake the print sales. Write or wrong, this is the direction the market is moving in, and publishers can either embrace change and become part of it, or resist it and perish.

But the question is how to embrace the change. I’m not talking about the backlists here, as though necessary, it requires establishing a separate strand of work. We are talking about the future here, as change is about the future. You can’t change your past.

Traditional Publishing Model

You need to adapt a Digital First strategy. This doesn’t mean publishing in digital formats first. The concept embraces disseminating knowlege through publishing, based on one simple rule:

When preparing a work for publishing, you don’t have primary and secondary outputs. You are publishing the work through multiple outlets (eg. Print, epub, mobi, iOS apps, android apps, the worldwide web, co-editions, braille and large formats, hardback, paperback, mass-market paperback, pocket editions, enhanced ebooks, interactive software, etc.)

You may choose not to publish in some of the formats available to you as part of your product management process. But you need to set up your work in a way that if and when you decide to release the book on a platform you are not using now, you will be able to. Virtually, you are making your assets future-proof.

Print is only one of the possible outputs, and as publishers, instead of building silos, you will be building a platform for your content. As Lionel Barber, the Editor of Financial Times has explained: “We need to ensure that we are serving a digital platform first, and a newspaper second. This is a big cultural shift for the FT that is only likely to be achieved with further structural change.”  (The Guardian)

Digital First Publishing Model

Adopting a Digital First strategy is not an option or a matter of taste, it is the only way forward for publishers. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that without Digital First, we will not be ready for the future.

Digital First means that you, as publishers, would need to prepare your cntent and mark your content up in a way that can be picked up by any publishing solution and rendered into a format suitable for a specific or generic delivery method. You use the XML markup language with a standard and coherent Document Type Definition (DTD) and therefore, you can pick the XML files for laying out your content for a print product. You can use the same file for producing an epub, mobi or PDF file, you can use it to render html web pages, and because the markup is the coherent, you can use the same XML file for producing your content on any medium that will be created in the future.

Digital First also means that you think about platforms rather silos, and think about multiple usage rather than single usage. It appreciates the fact that your readers/users have diverse requirements, needs and demands, and therefore your content, as part of a platform, should be created in a way so it can serve all these various demands. In the traditional publishing strategy, the publishers and the editors decided on how to shape the content and how the content should be delivered and consumed. In a Digtal First paradigm, publishers and readers/users share the role of shaping and delivering content, and users have more controle and power on how they would like to consume content. Publishers deliver content, but also empower readers to decide on how to consume it.

For example, as an academic publisher of textbooks in Film Studies, you have published 80 textbooks and monographs in the field. In the print world, you would package each book as a hardback or paperback, and they readers had to buy a whole book, even if they were only interested in reading a chapter of a book. At the same time, the reader also needed to read another chapter from another book you have published, but they had the pay for the complete package, and soon they would run out of money and would give up the whole idea. They would create their custom publication of course, by running to the university library, photocopying the chapters they needed from various titles, and putting them together. But this has never been a sustainable business model either for publishers or users. The extreme effort the user has to put in to create a volume that serves her specific needs, means that she will do this only as a last resort, and only if she is in absolute need (eg. an upcoming exam or deadline).

Now imagine that our reader didn’t need to put so much effort into creating a custom publication for her needs. Imagine that she only needed to drag and drop the chapters from various titles into a custom digital volume in no time and at an affordable, and could start reading her own custom book immediately. Imagine a university tutor who could create his textbook by compiling various chapters from various books and create a new book, annotate it, and then leave it on the cloud of the publisher’s website so students could easily go there and download it at an affordable price. Would they do this more often? Would students read more? Would the dissemination of knowledge become more seamless? Would the books that you, the publisher-author-editor, have created, continue to grow and exist long after you have moved on to other projects? Would this be a sustainable business model?

In my humble opinion, the answer to all the above is YES. And a Digital First Strategy is the only way to achieve this.

Of course, other publishing concepts and processes would need to adapt to the new paradigm. Once of the most important components of publishing industry that needs to be revolutionised is Rights Management. The old rights management rules need to change and adapt to the new world. But this is a topic for another discussion.

[NEXT ARTICLE: XML: The cornerstone of a Digital First strategy for publishers]

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