At The London Book Fair this week I had the feeling that the world is entering a digital publishing downturn.

London Book Fair 2014 digital publishing

London Book Fair 2014

Previous Book Fairs showed a healthy acceleration to digital with new companies emerging with sweet ideas. One year I was quite inspired by Read and Note’s idea of distributing text books on an electronic platform that lets students make notes alongside the text. There was a dot com boom feeling that around any corner you might meet someone with a very clever idea.

I have also heard the PPA London (Professional Publishers Association) say that publishers are no longer that interested in discussing digital. Their focus has gone back onto traditional print revenues.

I talked to a few publishers at the Book Fair under the mistaken assumption that e-books were now such a default that they were all digital natives. “We still don’t have a digital-first strategy and there are a lot of upstream issues before we will be able to go straight into XML,” said the publications technology officer for a huge global NGO.

My suspicion, that the world had not only stood still, but probably leapt back five years, was confirmed by Richard Mollet, the head of the book industry trade body, the Publishers Association, who opened the book fair warning that the industry needed to up its digital game.

Simply “turning a book into a PDF” was not innovative enough to capture readers’ imaginations and sales, he warned. “In any sector, in any industry, stagnation is death.”

So, you heard it first here, we are officially in a place of digital stagnation, recession (ie no growth) and, possibly, even time-warping backwards. I can think of a few reasons why that might be, but you will doubtless have your own:

 a) Lack of belief that investment in digital technology will ever pay off for the publishing industry, hence the return to focusing back on the old stuff that did at least make money

b) Complete confusion about which trend to follow. Standing still at the cross-roads waiting to see which way the audience goes

c) As above but confused about the plethora of technologies and platforms and waiting to see which ones win out before jumping on board.

d) Managing decline as money and resources syphon slowly out of traditional publishing (periodicals and books), and the people who make things happen move on to industries with a brighter future.

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