I though it might be of interest to crosspost an event review of a panel I was on about the future of publishing in the digital age. The panel formed part of the November meeting of the Society of Editors (Victoria) and the review was written by the talented Ben Hourigan. You can find out more about Ben on his blog here. If you work with words or content of any kind – it’s well worth the read.

Society of Editors members and friends gathered in larger than-usual numbers for November’s dinner meeting on the pressing topic of digital publishing. With web, mobile applications and ebooks accounting for the fastest-growing (indeed, perhaps the only growing) portion of the publishing industry, such a show of interest was understandable. To comment on the future of publishing in the digital age, the society called on industry leaders Dr Susan Hawthorne, publisher and co-founder of Spinifex Press, which has published ebooks since 2006; Jane Nethercote, senior digital editor at Lonely Planet; and Kate Kendall [considering you’re here, you don’t need my bio]. Freelance writer and Wheeler Centre online content manager George Dunford acted as moderator.

Discussion opened with the question of what form ‘the new book’ will take. All three panellists agreed that the book in future would come in a multiplicity of forms. Hawthorne focused on the range of current ebook formats, as well as the almost certain emergence of new ones. Informed by Lonely Planet’s involvement with web and mobile app publishing, Nethercote emphasised multimedia and interactivity as well as the portability that digital media can offer when compared to print guidebooks. Kendall posed the idea that content, rather than the medium, would bethe focus, with stories now being dispersed socially and through a range of channels.

Considering the way technology changes writing, editing and publishing, Hawthorne noted that something new has happened every year since 1992 which affected editorial, accounting and every other area of Spinifex’s business. Kendall and Nethercoteboth talked about the increased audience feedback available in digital publishing, where books can start as blogs, and analytics allows publishers to see which news articles people read (or don’t), and which ones they like and dislike. Yet anxiety goes along with possibility in the new era, which has seen newspapers in particular have their business models massively disrupted. Nethercote spoke of her experience at Crikey, which sees a tussle between the simultaneous needs of creating more pageviews for advertising impressions and gathering revenue from subscribers,a process which limits readership by excluding non-paying potential viewers.

This discussion also raised the phenomenon of getting to know people first as social-media avatars rather than by their physical presence or even their actual face, which resurfaced later in Kendall’s observation that personas are newly forceful in social media, and that fictional characters can now emerge as profiles, not just within the frame of previous storytelling media. (This writer was stunned to meet Kendall for the first time and realise she knew him mainly as the Auryn image he uses for his Twitter profile pic.)

Another change to the business of publishing is the increasing importance of the ‘long tail’, where the huge quantity of special interest content for niche audiences collectively rivals the commercial and cultural significance of the ‘fat head’, composed of the top-selling, most-talked-about material. Ebooks never go out of print, Hawthorne noted, and with the internet able to expose books of less-than-mainstream interest where retail outlets might not, the first books Spinifex ever published still have life in the ‘long tail’.

Conversation then splintered into diverse topics, including the imperative for travel guidebooks to be updated more frequently as the internet changes audiences’ ideas of timeliness; to the possibility and ethics of crowdsourcing content; and the difficulty of typesetting poetry in ebook formats that offer limited formatting options.

Speakers converged again on the changing nature of reading, and the place of traditional, printed ‘p-books’ within it. Kendall commented that it’s a hipster trait to like what most people don’t, so that if ebooks ever overtake printed books, reading on dead trees will become cool again. In spite of her hyper engagement with digital media, Kendall observed that reading books is actually the last thing she does on her iPad.

In contrast, Hawthorne told how one of her first iPad experiences was to download and read free Virginia Woolf novels. Dunford drew Nethercote out on the issue of her attention span, which she admitted had become segmented, before wondering what would happen with the next generation – will children who grew up on Facebook and Twitter have any connection to the p-book? Kendall discussed how the fragmentation of attention that comes with having 20 browser tabs open at once creates a greater need for depth – which printed books can offer – as a balance to hyperactive and multitasking styles of attention.

The first question from the audience echoed this last concern: will great, deep, fabulous novels still be written? Contrary to the common fear that future changes will destroy what has been of most value in our existing culture, the panellists were optimistic. Hawthorne was confident that such novels will still be written, though it may take 50 to 100 years before they attain the entrenched classic status of A Tale of Two Cities. Nethercote believed that the internet has actually enriched writing by exposing more people to the best available: a reader anywhere with an internet connection is as or more likely to awake (or procrastinate) to the latest gems from the New Yorker and Slate as to their local paper. Kendall reinforced this observation by pointing out that social recommendations also act to bring outstanding content to light.

Questions from the audience ranged across parallels to the musicindustry, the dangers of DRM-facilitated censorship, the importance of meta data in ebooks and readability in online typography. A recurring theme cutting across several questions regarded the editor’s place in the new publishing landscape. Hawthorne’s responses pointed out that readers – who may argue books are too expensive – often misunderstand the cost structure of book production, and how it has changed. With minimum print runs being smaller than ever, and ebook production and distribution costs being minimal, editorial costs are now a much greater share of the total. In this scenario, further cost reductions would threaten editorial standards

Responses to some of the final questions included positive notes on how editors should prepare themselves to work in the digital arena. Kendall listed an overwhelming array of favourable skills, knowledge and experience: of file formats, HTML and CSS; and in web design, SEO (search engine optimisation), content strategy, and producing content to a budget. How to learn it all?

Nethercote advised editors to start a blog so they can experimentand learn on their own how to ferret out those display errors that are unique to the web. Hawthorne recommended saying ‘yes’when people ask if you can do or even try to do something – you can do all the seminars you like, but until you learn hands on, you don’t know how something works. As daunting as a digital future can seem even for those at the bleeding edge of innovation, where change occurs the fastest, knowing that the spirit of play and daring will serve us well does not frighten: it inspires.

Would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on the future of the publishing landscape.

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