(or electronic publishing –  challenges and limits; guest post by Sonja Ocic)

(this is the first in a series of posts written by my dear colleague Sonja Ocic, who works at Clio publishing company as a rights manager.)

The disappearance of the paper book and its transfer to electronic book took place in the last few decades as a very present theme in the developed world; first as a prediction, then as a topic of many books, magazines, websites and blogs, and also as a subject of scientific conferences, round tables and other gatherings. If we believe the latest data, pessimistic predictions were more or less true. Classic book has not yet disappeared, but has lost its primacy since 2011. Amazon, the largest bookstore in the world, sells 10 electronic books every second which is over 310 million copies annually. Also, the American National Institute of Standards and Technology predicts that by 2018, nearly 90% of books sold will be in an electronic form. On the other hand, electronic publishing in Serbia, by itself and as a theme, is much less prevalent.

Our civilization is considered as the civilization of book. The appearance of literacy has enabled the transition to civilization and book is its main characteristic. In its development, a book has gone from manuscript to print and then to electronic book. The first manuscripts were written on different surfaces until it came to paper print, and the latest changes lead book from the world of atoms into the world of bits; more precisely, a book has been dissolved. From today’s perspective, a book as a medium of mass communication gets its true meaning only with beginning of printing (in 1452), which allows copying and wide-distribution of books, and the first book that Gutenberg and his partners began to print was the Bible that appeared in 1455.

However, history shows that even printing had large capital needs. Working in metal is expensive, produced copies had to be sold well, requiring specialized network for finding customers, expedition and billing. The fact that Gutenberg and his partners decided to first publish Bible in forty-two lines doesn’t mean that, reproducing large-scale texts in the material conditions similar to conditions in the manuscript preparation, they wanted to primarily show what new technique can do, but rather that they were confident in a commercial success of this book. And like printed book between 1500 and 1510 defeated the manuscript, soon vernacular will replace Latin as printed book demanded a larger market within the limits of the national language.

In modern, industrial society, there is a significant change in the production of books. Instead of the old workshop where a master printer lived and worked, now real “book factories” are emerging. The game is now run by the publisher who implements its publishing policy, orders the job from writers when the need arises, determines material properties of a title or collection, make budget calculations in advance and organise the distribution of books. Publisher emerged as the focal link of the literary field, between the author (who is published and paid), printer (who receives an order) and distributors (that he supplies and with whom he is associated with contracts or accurate business practices). The transition to mass production in printing brought changes in distribution too. The logic of demand (the buyer pays the bookstore to purchase a particular title) is changed to the logic of supply (bookstore offers a buyer its assortment). For this reason alone bookstores are redesigned, shop opens to the street, and there come windows, signs, posters, and then commercials.

In the 20th century, around 1980, we have entered into the third phase which is dominated by the phenomenon of online communication through the interconnection of machines and users and digitization. This is how the transition from an industrial, modern society to the postindustrial and postmodern society has been made. Applied digitization has influenced the rest of the book world and publishing: text is stored in the form of digital files and distributed online over the Internet and here comes the electronic book that threatens to push paper-cover away.

Of course, changes that digital age brought are not applied solely on book. Dematerialisation is something that the whole culture has faced. Opposition of classic and electronic book is just a special case of far-reaching tension between “real” and “virtual” – a fundamental dilemma is highlighted by the question of whether the change in media means changing the very nature of books and reading. Naturally, the change is certainly there and the question is whether it is essential, and if so, whether it is positive or negative. Anthropological pessimists give one answer to this question, optimists give another. However, as always, any gain is also a loss.

Electronic publishing is just one of the changes that occurred due to the advent of digital technology that has become a good part of the contemporary world and the culture that is being referred to as the digital culture. Simultaneous development of science, media and  capital under the auspices of digital technology creates the effect of rapid forward movement, where it seems that everything goes quickly and that major changes occur in a very short time. This causes euphoria and fear at the same time, because of the speed with which it all happens. In all this, the development of new technologies has had a major impact on the publishing industry and therefore in printing, and then in other publishing activities, significant changes have occurred, which have often been called the digital revolution. Using the term revolutionary suggests that this is not a process of gentle, gradual evolution, nor some carefully planned change. Revolutions imply major changes, adopting a completely new paradigm, the loss of many things which were taken for granted and present innovations that were previously considered impossible.

Whether you call them revolutionary or not, the basic tendency of these changes was dematerialization. In printing business, after more than five centuries (1450-1970) we left Gutenberg system based on assembling small elements (letters) before their printing. Process lead through the photographic sign to binary sign. Further progress in information technology (material, memory capacity, computer word processing, publishing with the help of a computer), and in particular the development of the Internet, lead to the emergence of electronic publishing. Digitization has become the most important way of reproduction and distribution in publishing. A traditional publisher can store texts of his funds in the form of digital files, pulling out a certain number of copies of new titles only at the request of a customer – what publisher couldn’t do at the time of the old printing business become affordable thanks to the Information Technology. This phenomenon is even more emphasized in the case of electronic books: book purchase and book download can be performed online and remotely directly to our PC so the process is even simpler.

As far as printing is concerned, two services are of particular importance: SRDP (short-run digital printing) and POD (printing on demand). SRDP is used for printing small quantities of copies – from 10/20 to 300/400 and this is also a major advantage over traditional, offset printing, which was cost-effective only for large runs. POD, however, is something completely new; SRDP is just a different method of printing but POD is more than that. This change is described by one of the pioneers of a POD: Before we first printed a book, then sell it, now we sell it first and then we print. The process looks like this: customer orders a book, either from traditional bookseller or from any online retailer like Amazon, order is transmitted to the supplier (POD) who prints it and forwards it back. One of the significant advantages of these new features is that they breathed new life into a number of books that have been left to oblivion many years ago because they couldn’t be printed in numerous copies which had to be profitable, as traditional printing demanded.

Digital revolution has a big impact on sales and on marketing. The dramatic rise of Amazon is the most obvious example of how the Internet has transformed the retail book sales. Amazon has introduced something completely new in this area: the visibility, availability and book sales have become much less dependent on the decisions and interactions in the chain of book sales, especially from the decisions of trade agents and others in the publishing houses who make decisions about which books are going to be offered to bookstores as priorities, as well from bookstore decision which books are going to be stored and in what quantity, how they will be exposed and so on.

Also, the digital revolution has changed the rules of the game in publishing making the figures transparent. Nobody can longer hide or exaggerate the success of the previous book, because everyone can check the numbers. Aggressive advertising campaigns continue to play an important role in the publishing game but campaign based on inflated figures is a matter of history. On the other hand, e-marketing revolution in publishing business is about to begin. Increased funds intended for marketing are withdrawn from traditional print media and invested in different types of online marketing; publishers are increasingly using the Internet to get into a direct contact with consumers and facilitate online interaction between a writer and reader.

Another aspect of marketing and promotion which is very important for publishers is what might be called a digital scroll. Of course, it was always possible to flip through the pages before you buy the book, and even to read a few pages. But publishers can now offer much more than what was possible in plain bookstores made out of brick and mortar. Readers can now view content, read the text on the cover of the book, or even to read a chapter or two. When you’re viewing the book online, you are just a step away from your purchase. The question is where to draw the line between the scrolling and consumption. Publishers say: We want to give the reader enough insight into the text in order to understand the content and decide to buy the book, but we do not want to enable him to read a lot because then the purchase is redundant. Often the model of scrolling depends on the type of a book, so with novels it’s best to allow readers to read the first chapter or two, but no more than that.

It is not difficult to see that the electronic book delivery will transform the supply chain and reverse the traditional financial model of publishing. It will no longer be necessary to refer to the printed books in warehouses, prices of paper, printing, etc., store books, receive unsold copies back, transport them to the bookstores and wholesalers.


This is the end of the first part of the series Digital Gutenberg that talks about electronic publishing; next time Sonja Ocic talks about the very concept and development of this type of book publishing. In the meantime, check out Act Nocturnal’s other interesting posts such as: how to publish a book on Amazon, what can beta readers do for you or buy an interesting book of short stories “Stories. For reading. And retelling.” while you warm up for Ana Gord’s first novel.

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If you're too tired to go out tonight, just think how you'll feel at seventy two!

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