Nic Boshart 2009 in Review: Digital Publishing's GED

The following is a post by our guest blogger, Nic Boshart of the Canadian Publishers Digital Services at the ACP. Nic is one of the founders of Invisible Publishing, as well as a gentleman and a scholar.

About five years ago my dad got a palm pilot. He could type notes, play Zeppelin, and he could read books. My dad isn’t a huge reader. He likes gadgets, but he’s more the home entertainment type. He started reading ebooks five years ago.

This year in eReading, a lot happened. Sure. People actually made money with eBooks. Amazon released the Kindle 2. Barnes and Noble released the Nook. The Kindle came to Canada, but not before Luxembourg. EPub was adopted by Sony and China. EReaders finally got touchscreens.

Wait, my dad’s palm pilot had a touchscreen! In fact, a quick search of Wikipedia reveals: “Touchscreens emerged from academic and corporate research labs in the second half of the 1960s.”

So what did happen in 2009 to digital publishing? Well, the dead-beat older sibling of all other digital media kind-of got his act together. After a couple years of bumming around, working at the 7-11 and playing Zork in Mom and Dad’s basement, digital reading took some night courses and finally graduated high school. It was a good year for digital publishing, but I wouldn’t call it great. The biggest change this year, and why people are freaking out, is that reality is sinking in; digital book reading is an actual thing that people want to do.

The big issue this year was publishing’s reaction to digital. I would categorize this under “insane speculation.” After seeing other media so thoroughly and rapidly transformed in past years, the fact that the eBook was getting media attention forced the industry adjust. It also created a bit of a panic. But was this panic warranted? Digital reading had its big breakout last year with Oprah. This, combined with the popularity of smartphones and a serious move towards more mobile computing was further exacerbated by the economic crisis which had people looking for better-value entertainment. Suddenly the sky was falling and publishing was dead, dying, or miraculously saved, depending on the HuffPo author.

Publishers saw Napster around every corner, a digital bogey-man leaping out to destroy their livelihoods. But that didn’t and isn’t going to happen. Here’s what did:

  1. We’ve got cool, new technologies called eReaders. They have this nifty thing called eInk that doesn’t damage your eyes. You can read a screen in the sun. Neat stuff. Rumours of amazing tablet technology coming any second now. EReaders are launched left and right, and the media has latched on and spread the word; it’s new-gadget-mania.
  2. Mobile computing is exploding. iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc. Cloud computing is taking off and netbooks are flying off the shelves. The device doesn’t matter, it’s more the idea that we have lots of easily accessible information all the time. It’s quickly becoming the norm.
  3. The economy. Blah blah blah. You remember. People stopped buying books. Some people figured out they could pay less for books and get them easily on their iPhones. But mostly, people stopped buying $50 dollar hardcovers. And they’re probably not going to start again, but this isn’t the fault of digital publishing, it’s the reality of online shopping and big-box stores, a reality that has been happening for some time. The eBook is just a nail in an already tightly closed coffin.

The outcome of all this was a lot of attention on digital publishing. But what else? As stated, a couple more stores, better distribution, and a few people came a couple steps closer to a standard. Nothing singularly revolutionary happened; we just talked like it did.

Publishing is thinking, evaluating, and changing along with the technology. Paper books are still sustaining the industry, but in the meantime publishers are looking for solutions and coming up with different business models before eReading becomes the norm.

This is the upshot of 12 months of nothing: Publishing is changing the industry, technology is not.

I mean it is, but in a sort of natural evolution of technology way. Let’s look quickly at newspapers. Articles and updates are a quick read and news is more potent when it’s new. Hence the name. This is the nature of the internetquick, digestible bits delivered constantly. It wasn’t that newspapers saw this and decided to make the most of it, it’s that users came to demand that news meet its expectations of quick and easily accessible. With technology, the way people spent time with news changed from a long-form reading experience to snippets anywhere and anytime because that made sense for the experience. It’s a better way to get the news.

And that’s actually the fundamental change of how we view media, a change that has been happening for years. Quick, constant access. The difference with publishing is that quick, easy access doesn’t matter that much for a book. A book is long-form, it’s meant to be taken in slowly. We can read snippets of it here and there, but we still are stuck with the whole thing for as long as it takes to finish it. Readers don’t want to click around for more information from a different source, they want to finish the book for the whole story. Convenience is not the issue for the book, like it is for news or music.

People aren’t finding it easier or more convenient to read eBooks except in that digitally is already the way they consume things. Our lives are digital now. Books didn’t help to make it that way, like news did, but books are expected to move along and adapt to the way people live their lives.

What happened with digital publishing in 2009? Well, not a lot. It just kind of felt like it was time to move on. The basement is dank and digital publishing wants a place of its own. Digital publishing is sick of taking crap from its go-nowhere manager, CD-ROM, at the 7-11. So digital publishing got its GED. And guess what; it applied for college and got in to a good one.

Lets stop the speculation. Let’s walk into 2010 knowing the industry is changing, but we’re on it. Bring on your tablets, get that colour eInk, make sure you have a strong digital program, but don’t blame it for the failings of the industry itself. There is no Achilles heel of publishing, there is a world that’s changing, and publishers are starting to react.

This blog post was inspired by a post on Digital Tonto called “Why There Is No Dominant Trend Toward New Media.”