The future of the publishing house

The history, and consequently the future, of publishing is linked intrinsically to the biography of the modern world. From hand bills produced using movable type to eBooks delivered over the Internet, the ability of the publishing house to innovate and assimilate ensures its prosperity. Major events, intertwined with the role of the publisher, have borne witness to revolutions both industrial and cultural. Over the years publishers have shown a great eagerness to embrace new technology, developing ideas to further advance their craft.

Gutenberg’s technological innovations fundamentally changed medieval Europe’s ability to share expertise and increase knowledge. During the Reformation of the 1500s, the Protestants were able to break the stranglehold of the Catholic Church by strategically placed reading material. To maximise his audience their leader, Martin Luther, translated the often complex Latin Bible into German. Across the Channel King Henry VIII used the printing press to disseminate an English language Bible, a major building block for his newly formed Church Of England. In these instances it was publishing which played a major role in opening up religion. The flow-on effect from such collaborations allowed the common man to seek alternatives, expand his knowledge, and ultimately become a free thinker.

While history may determine that Harry Potter was the pinnacle of publishing in the twentieth century – contributing to mass literacy by reminding millions of children of the joys of reading – the challenge for the publishing house is to embrace this new found audience and nurture it. Keeping readers interested in the written word will involve both traditional methodology and new options available through the impact of the digital age.

Despite the J.K. Rowling-led recovery, some continue to argue that the end of the book is nigh with publications besieged on all sides from such distractions as the Web, PDAs, computer games, and cable television. With so much going on how can one possibly allocate enough attention for the book to compete? Many of their arguments centre on the Internet. With its emphasis on textual extracts, co-operative creation and browsing, life on the Web seems ill-suited to stimulate the sustained, accredited conveyance of complex ideas that has been the historical purview of the printed page.

Yet these arguments are flawed. Publishing houses abound with optimistic reports on the future of the book. History has shown an uncanny ability for publishers to adapt. The Potter phenomenon shows that people are reading more, not less. The Internet is stimulating literacy by offering links to alternative publishing options, online book clubs, eBooks, eReaders, RSS feeds and print-on-demand. Here, rejected manuscripts are given new leases on life. These books, that otherwise may have fallen through the crack, are now available to the reading public, and occasionally a publishing house. A number of writers have successfully made a career out of initially self-publishing including renowned Australian author Matthew Reilly, who had his first book Contest self-published after his manuscript was turned down. His subsequent books were picked up by an international publishing house and, as they say, the rest is history.

Publishing houses have embraced this new technology in innovative ways. A number of the larger organisations have enhanced traffic to their web sites through the inclusion of RSS feeds. Really Simple Syndication is an innovative way of delivering content to a user’s inbox. The RSS text file can contain information about news on upcoming book titles and other publishing events, bookmarked by start and end tags. These tags contain a headline title, URL and description. To maximise the use of RSS, publishers are now encouraging writers to Blog. Blogging is essentially an on-line diary updated perhaps more frequently than the traditional web site. Author specific Blogs often contain links, may include input from other authors and readers (like an on-line forum), and are an excellent way to share information about their latest book or event.

The Internet not only allows publishers to sell books directly without retailer discounts but their site content is also on display twenty-four hours a day, providing an invaluable source of information for both the media and reading public. Viral marketing, web blogs and clever use of search engines allow publishers access to new markets previously unheard of. Marketing techniques such as GoogleAds allow publishers to create tailor-made advertising, with results targeted to a user’s specific request. Coupled with web sites such as You Tube and Face Book, publishing houses can more easily advertise to a select group or audience, and at a fraction of the costs of traditional media such as radio or television.

In 2008 the eBook took another step forward with two of Britain’s biggest publishers, Random House and Hachette, revealing they’re ready to offer eBooks by some of their top writers. In addition, Penguin plan to release new eBooks to coincide with their print editions to feed a growing demand for digital books. These eBooks will be available to download from Penguin’s web site and from digital retailers from September 2008. Penguin are also developing their back catalogue of over 5,000 titles into eBooks and plan to make them available for purchase later this year. With production costs set to a minimum, these eBooks will be priced the same as their printed counterparts allowing publishers such as Penguin even greater profit potential. Coupled with the price of handheld electronic book readers also coming down, costs are already low enough to allow anyone to publish to everyone, for reading everywhere.

However, the problem with dedicated eBook devices such as Amazon’s Kindle is that they lack the back-end infrastructure for effective content distribution because they are focused on publisher-only options. Luckily, one of the benefits of the eBook is the ability to view them on devices many of us already own. As an example, Sony’s PSP (Play Station Portable) and Apple’s iPod Touch and iPhone come with software that allows PDF-centric eBooks to be displayed and, what is more important, easily read. Software such as Apple’s iTunes which currently manages songs, podcasts, photos, and video for the iPod range have no trouble organising and displaying PDF based eBook files. One of the major features of the iPhone and iPod Touch is it’s ability to automatically change the screen orientation when a user turns it sideways. The 3.5 inch screen is perfect for reading and, as it runs a scaled down version of the Apple operating system (Mac OSX), it can generate and read PDF files with ease. Coupled with their ability to connect to the Internet using any standard WiFi network the future of the eBook phenomenon is a rosy one.

Another future-proof publishing plan revolves around print-on-demand. Bloomsbury, which publishes the Harry Potter books in the United Kingdom, recently signed a deal with Microsoft to be part of its Live Search programme. Live Search allows users to not only locate books but have them printed. Publishing houses such as Bloomsbury hope that the print-on-demand market, in which customers can have one off copies of out of print titles printed, bound and posted to them, will give older books new exposure. In 2000 Barnes & Noble bought a 49% stake in online publishing house who at the time had over 20,000 print-on-demand titles. This gave iUniverse an income stream separate from the Internet, owing to the fact that Barnes & Nobel proceeded to set up kiosks in their bricks and mortar stores allowing customers to access these additional titles.

One interesting side effect to this ever diverse technology is the appearance of obscure publishing houses. Take the Icon Group for instance. In less than a decade its owner, Philip Parker, has become the most published author in history, with hundreds of thousands of books to his name. Amazon list him as the author of over 85,000 different titles on niche topics such as the import and export market for women’s textile suits and costumes in the Middle East. Each book takes less than an hour to write and Icon’s titles sell for massively marked-up prices. Professor Parker sees himself as more of a facilitator than an author, developing and patenting algorithms which enable computers to write books for him. Typically these books are non-fiction and based on extremely specialist topics. They are compiled on-demand, utilising publicly available information found in off-line sources and on the Internet. So each year the publishing industry produces thousands more such books, ever larger, ever more specialised, ever more obscure. Yet every year, the industry’s cost-effectiveness manages to make money from such books, allowing further investment. The miracle of modern publishing is that it is cost-effective to produce obscure texts!

Production costs for traditional print publications (which can easily be converted to eBooks) can more easily be kept to a minimum with newer technologies. For instance, in conjunction with a major publishing house, Sunshine Coast University are developing software based on Adobe InDesign that will allow for the creation of completed page layouts based on a set of parameters utilising style sheets. Books which may have taken days to typeset will soon be output in minutes. This process could work well when developing text heavy volumes such as user manuals, academic publications, and finance reports. While it wont replace the graphic designer it will avail them to pursue additional tasks.

It is the use of technology coupled with clever fiscal policies, by way of outsourcing and decentralisation, that will allow publishing houses to become future proof. The benefits for small to medium companies in externalising editing, design, distribution, and marketing means cutting unnecessary overheads, freeing up valuable resources to further expand their business model. A publishing house is merely the shape of a particular business enterprise. The shape, the externals may well change, but as long as publishing itself keeps happening, there will always be houses (tents, or hangars!) of one sort or another.  It will always be the publishing that counts, not the form of the organisation that does it.

It’s a sad fact of life that people still burn books. However, that only means that books are still menacing enough to destroy. Therefore, if people wish to destroy them then they are valuable enough that they, and the publisher who supplies them, will endure. It is Darwinism at its finest.


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Krozser, Kassia, How The iPhone Can Save The Book Business, 10/01/2007

Moses, Asher, Automaton author writes up a storm, 21/04/2008

O’Reilly, Tim, The iPhone As An eBook Reader, 12/01/2007

Petras, Kathryn and Ross, World Access, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996

Rose, M.J., The Future of Publishing,, February 2000

Snooks & Co., Style manual, John Wiley & Sons Australia Ltd, Barton, 2007

Turner, Adam, eBook – fact or fiction?,, 20/02/2008