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Lou Jenkins is the award-winning author of
Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting
"If you combined the lyricism of Annie Dillard, the vision of
Aldo Leopold, and the gentle but tough-minded optimism of Frank
McCourt, you might come close to Amy Lou Jenkins.Tom Bissell
author of The Father of All Things
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The State of the Art of Publishing by
Are e-books the trend of the future? Does the internet have a
huge role to play in publishing?
article sponsored by:
UNESCO's somewhat arbitrary definition of "book" is:
""Non-periodical printed publication of at least 49 pages excluding covers".
The emergence of electronic publishing was supposed to change all that. Yet a
bloodbath of unusual proportions has taken place in the last few months. Time
Warner's iPublish and MightyWords (partly owned by Barnes and Noble) were the
last in a string of resounding failures which cast in doubt the business model
underlying digital content. Everything seemed to have gone wrong: the dot.coms
dot bombed, venture capital dried up, competing standards fractured an already
fragile marketplace, the hardware (e-book readers) was clunky and awkward, the
software unwieldy, the e-books badly written or already in the public domain.
Terrified by the inexorable process of disintermediation (the establishment of
direct contact between author and readers, excluding publishers and bookstores)
and by the ease with which digital content can be replicated - publishers
resorted to draconian copyright protection measures (euphemistically known as
"digital rights management"). This further alienated the few potential readers
left. The opposite model of "viral" or "buzz" marketing (by encouraging the
dissemination of free copies of the promoted book) was only marginally more
Moreover, e-publishing's delivery platform, the Internet, has been transformed
beyond recognition since March 2000.
From an open, somewhat anarchic, web of networked computers - it has evolved
into a territorial, commercial, corporate extension of "brick and mortar"
giants, subject to government regulation. It is less friendly towards
independent (small) publishers, the backbone of e-publishing. Increasingly, it
is expropriated by publishing and media behemoths. It is treated as a medium for
cross promotion, supply chain management, and customer relations management. It
offers only some minor synergies with non-cyberspace, real world, franchises and
media properties. The likes of Disney and Bertelsmann have swung a full circle
from considering the Internet to be the next big thing in New Media delivery -
to frantic efforts to contain the red ink it oozed all over their otherwise
impeccable balance sheets.
But were the now silent pundits right all the same? Is the future of publishing
(and other media industries) inextricably intertwined with the Internet?
The answer depends on whether an old habit dies hard. Internet surfers are used
to free content. They are very reluctant to pay for information (with precious
few exceptions, like the "Wall Street Journal"'s electronic edition). Moreover,
the Internet, with 3 billion pages listed in the Google search engine (and
another 15 billion in "invisible" databases), provides many free substitutes to
every information product, no matter how superior. Web based media companies
(such as Salon and Britannica.com) have been experimenting with payment and
pricing models. But this is besides the point. Whether in the form of
subscription (Britannica), pay per view (Questia), pay to print (Fathom), sample
and pay to buy the physical product (RealRead), or micropayments (Amazon) -the
public refuses to cough up.
Moreover, the advertising-subsidized free content Web site has died together
with Web advertising. Geocities - a community of free hosted, ad-supported, Web
sites purchased by Yahoo! - is now selectively shutting down Web sites (when
they exceed a certain level of traffic) to convince their owners to revert to a
monthly hosting fee model. With Lycos in trouble in Europe, Tripod may well
follow suit shortly. Earlier this year, Microsoft has shut down ListBot (a host
of discussion lists).
Suite101 has stopped paying its editors (content authors) effective January
15th. About.com fired hundreds of category editors. With the ugly demise of
Themestream, WebSeed is the only content aggregator which tries to buck the
trend by relying (partly) on advertising revenue.
Paradoxically, e-publishing's main hope may lie with its ostensible adversary:
the library. Unbelievably, e-publishers actually tried to limit the access of
library patrons to e-books (i.e., the lending of e-books to multiple patrons).
But, libraries are not only repositories of knowledge and community centres.
They are also dominant promoters of new knowledge technologies. They are already
the largest buyers of e-books. Together with schools and other educational
institutions, libraries can serve as decisive socialization agents and introduce
generations of pupils, students, and readers to the possibilities and riches of
e-publishing. Government use of e-books (e.g., by the military) may have the
same beneficial effect.
As standards converge (Adobe's Portable Document Format and Microsoft's MS
Reader LIT format are likely to be the winners), as hardware improves and
becomes ubiquitous (within multi-purpose devices or as standalone higher quality
units), as content becomes more attractive (already many new titles are
published in both print and electronic formats), as more versatile information
taxonomies (like the Digital Object Identifier) are introduced, as the Internet
becomes more gender-neutral, polyglot, and cosmopolitan - e-publishing is likely
to recover and flourish.
This renaissance will probably be aided by the gradual decline of print
magazines and by a strengthening movement for free open source scholarly
publishing. The publishing of periodical content and academic research
(including, gradually, peer reviewed research) may be already shifting to the
Web. Non-fiction and textbooks will follow. Alternative models of pricing are
already in evidence (author pays to publish, author pays to obtain peer review,
publisher pays to publish, buy a physical product and gain access to enhanced
online content, and so on). Web site rating agencies will help to discriminate
between the credible and the in-credible. Publishing is moving - albeit kicking
and screaming - online.
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After
the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe
Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental
health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and
Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government of
Visit Sam's Web site at http://samvak.tripod.com