Digital Era Has Print On the Run

BooksText needs a makeover. If the plummeting value of printed word markets over the last ten years has shown us anything, it’s the fact that text itself has no inherent commodity value.

The value of text seemed to be in the newspapers, magazines and books, but now we don’t need physical artefacts like them to deliver it, it’s now obvious the value was in the paper and shipping.

In today’s world where song and movie files are swapped like germs on a plane flight, digital technology seems to render information in text form (which takes up minimal file size) completely devoid of value at all.

Since the early web era, newspaper websites – including the one you might be reading this story on – have given news stories and features away for free. If you haven’t paid to read this story, the publisher is hoping you’ll click on the ad links just next to it, which will help offset the cost of producing or buying the story. But the business model is far from assured, and the money online content is making across the news industry isn’t making up for the collapse in printed advertising.

“It’s really hard to get someone like me to pay for something that is readily available through lots of other sources,” says CEO Paul Roberts, “unless it’s a profound and original and unique.”

Roberts runs Branding Establishment, a digital publishing and content outfit based in Australia, and he’s at what he consider the cutting edge of platform-based content delivery. “We don’t see ourselves as a publishing house,” he says, “more a content production house. We do ebooks and apps.”

Roberts is on the case to give text more value in an era when it’s so easy to replicate and share. History has already shown us how preventing readers consuming text the way they want isn’t the answer. Technologies like Digital Rights Management are reactive rather than proactive, annoying, and they’re usually broken by smart, indignant hackers as soon as they emerge.

The solution is to put information in a compelling enough form so readers want to consume it in the way it was intended and designed. An example is Our Choice, the erstwhile sequel to ex US Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth. Created by US studio Pushpop Press, Our Choice is one of what the company calls the ‘next generation of digital books’. Where some ebooks embed a few videos and pictures, Our Choice is more app than ebook, with uniquely designed page layouts that swipe and move to reveal links, further information, embedded media and maps, all presented beautifully and seamlessly.

To Paul Roberts, that’s the value proposition that will give text a price tag again. “We now use digital devices that supersede anything the physical touch of paper gives you. There’s an accelerometer, GPS chip, the social media dynamic, the audio and video dimensions. The experience is richer than anything than you can put in print.”

Roberts adds that the ability to redeploy the content across platforms is ensuring his success. “We’re quite happy to produce gorgeous coloured books with amazing pictures. Our app versions focus on amazing videos. We’re converting our bestselling titles into a TV documentary series. So we look at every platform opportunity to try and bring this content to life in a new way.”

Ironically the area most predicted to die off in the web age – books – is thriving in one form or another. In June it was reported US publishers posted more revenue from ebooks than hardback books for the first time (and that was following growth in both sectors, which seems to disprove the doom and gloom). More people are reading than ever before.

Shona Martyn, publishing director of HarperCollins Australia, thinks there’ll be a spreading of platform availability rather than a contraction in any single area. “People are choosing whether they’re buying a physical book to keep, or that they’re going to consume in a different way, like a commercial fiction book you only read once and then give to a friend or leave in a hotel room. Apps are a much more functional kind of book, so we’ve actually got a broadening out of the ways people read.”

Of course, we can try to give value back to text, but who’s going to pay to do that when there’s so much around for free? The cost of a product is equal to the cheapest form of it available in the market, after all, and if you ask anybody trying to make a living as a writer you’ll hear the same story about how hard it’s getting.

As newspapers and magazines that pay a living wage shrink and disappear, a million websites and blogs spring up which pay little or nothing. Until the web commands the advertising clout of ‘traditional’ media, digital content platforms will have little income to pay for content to be produced professionally (to ‘print’ standard, one might say).

If we fast-forward to a dystopian media future of a billion free blogs where news and magazines are a historical relic like vinyl LPs, we might ask who’s going to write all those words when doing so doesn’t put food on the table?

There are holdouts. Despite the profit carnage in the sector, no less than Rupert Murdoch himself still has faith, saying in a speech at the News Awards recently that newspapers will be part of his publishing empire “for many years to come” while also delivering “the greatest news experience possible on other platforms”.

Andrew Schrage of US financial advice website compensates his writers on a par with major periodical publishers. Even though he didn’t have the budget to do so early on, it was a goal he wanted to reach. “We insist on accuracy and clarity in all articles, which is something you don’t see on many websites,” Schrage says. “You get what you pay for and if you’re paying nothing, you can’t expect high quality.”

“There’s already pressure on prices because there is so much that’s free,” agrees Shona Martyn. But when it comes to finding out how much people will pay for digital content, she adds that ebooks gives HarperCollins the freedom to experiment, freedom the paper-thin margins on printed books (because of shipping, returns, pulping, etc) don’t allow. “We have a huge advantage in price promoting,” Martyn explains. “Strategically dropping the price of an ebook – which we can do for a day or a week if we want – can get quite significant traction in terms of volume.”

So will ‘digital’ always mean cheap or free? Keep reading to find out.