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033: Digital Publishing's Present

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

We have now arrived at digital publishing’s present. Glad to have you here! While it’s impossible to explore every single thing that’s currently going on in the multifaceted, far-reaching world of digital publishing, we’re going to have a look at four hot topics that you should understand if you want to be in the know in this industry. From DRM to capabilities of InDesign CC to self publishing and publishing in a pandemic, let’s have a look at where digital publishing is today.

Hot Topic #1: Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Digital rights management (DRM) is kind of exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way for publishers to systematically approach and manage copyright protection of their digital media works. If you’ve ever purchased an e-book you have experienced DRM. As you may have experienced, you cannot simply share or distribute an ebook in the same way that you can share a physical book. That’s because ebooks rights are managed in a way that restricts unauthorized distribution of the work. Another way to think about it is that a digital media file protected by DRM is “wrapped” to prevent it from being shared or copied. The restrictions are applied by the retailer/distributor. If you’ve ever borrowed an ebook from the library, the DRM applied to loaned ebooks works in a way that restricts viewing to a specific time frame. So you’re able to view the book for a set time (ex: 3 weeks) and after that time limit is up, the book disappears from your virtual bookshelf. (No late fees to see here, thank you very much!) So in the same way that libraries purchase a specific number of copies of a physical book for their locations, they also purchase licences to loan out specific numbers of digital copies of ebooks that comply with the DRM. The concept of DRM can be controversial: If I buy a hardcopy book, I can share it so why can’t I share a digital book that I’ve purchased? Well, here’s a way you can think about it. Not just anybody has access to a high-resolution scanner, a printing press and professional binding equipment that would be needed to reproduce a printed book, however the ease and speed of distribution of digital content means that without DRM it would be really easy for someone to buy something once and share it with all of their friends, the world over. This spirit of gifting and abundance sounds lovely, however think of it from the publisher’s perspective; it would quickly destroy the publishing industry as we know it. So DRM imposes restrictions embedded within the digital media that make it difficult, if not impossible, to share freely. But before DRM, digital content must be created to have any rights to manage. Take it away, trend #2...

Hot Topic #2: Software for Digital Publishing

The Adobe Creative Suite, and specifically InDesign, is the de facto standard in layout and publishing. InDesign Creative Cloud (CC) makes it easy to design a publication once and then re-purpose it for multiple mediums; both printed and digital. Interactive PDFs with hyperlinks, embedded video and audio, as well as form fields and buttons can be created with just a few clicks. Furthermore, InDesign CC also allows you to create SWF (‘swiff’) presentation files, which is a type of animation file that allows users to realistically turn the pages of digital documents to provide greater realism and enhanced sensory appeal. It also allows you to animate text and images within the digitally published document. Finally, InDesign CC allows you to create and export epub ebooks, either as a fixed layout or as a reflowable layout. In a fixed layout epub, the layout of each page won’t change in the ebook reader and it’s primarily used for documents with lots of images that the author does not want reflowed in undesirable ways. Conversely, reflowable epub documents allow text to freely reflow from page-to-page as it’s resized by the reader, primarily for text-heavy long documents. These small epub files work wonderfully on mobile devices and they can be used to sell your work in online bookstores, such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo Writing Life. This is a perfect segue to our next trend...

Hot Topic #3: Self Publishing

Self publishing is a huge and exciting trend that’s gaining traction and challenging the traditional publishing market. In the days of yesteryear, if you wanted to publish a book, one of the only ways you could do it was by having a publisher buy the rights to your work and publish it on your behalf. While this model has worked well for hundreds of years, the Internet has ushered in the age of democratized published works and has created the conditions within which the traditional publishing model is less important today. Notice I used the term less important and not not important, as traditional publishing still absolutely has its place in this world as a means to provide high-quality professionally-vetted fact checked content and as a way to provide readers with some level of assurance of the quality of the writing and quality of content overall.

However, by removing the publishing middle person and gatekeepers to information, this opens up a whole new world of niche content that would never have been financially viable at any other time in history. Typically for a publishing project to be worth doing (in financial terms), it must be anticipated or predicted to cover the costs of the expertise put into it (from the author through to the editors, layout artists, printers, and many, many more involved along the way) and turn a profit. But with the decentralized model of self publishing, there are huge opportunities for anyone to publish work about anything (and at any quality level).

Do you want to create a book all about the art of butter sculptures? How about a beautiful coffee table-style digital book all about celebrating Christmas in July...specifically in Winnipeg? Why not? It doesn’t matter anymore if there is a very (sometimes very, very) small niche audience who wants to read your content. The costs associated with publishing the work are little to none, above and beyond the time the author spends writing and editing. As one of my favourite thought leaders, Seth Godin, explores in his book We Are All Weird: The Myth of Mass and The End of Compliance, we can celebrate choice and embrace the power of the Internet to allow us all to be heard, no matter how wacky our interests may be. “A new era of weirdness is upon us” and I am here for it. This weirdness takes the form of sometimes very specific interests and the internet allows us to connect with “our people” from anywhere on the planet, in ways that could never have been possible only a decade or two ago.

One of my absolute favourite stories of self publishing was told in a TEDx event by author of The Martian, Andy Weir. His hilarious, informative and self-deprecating coming-of-age-as-a-novelist story is entitled Ending The Old Boy Network: The New World of Publishing. In a story that lasts just over 15 minutes, Weir describes wanting to be a novelist as a child, but choosing a more practical and stable major: computer programming. When he was laid off in 1999 and given a healthy severance package, he decided that this was his time to give professional publishing a go. So he wrote a novel. He tried to get a literary agent. He tried to break into the publishing industry. Three years went by and he decided that enough time had passed trying to live out his dream but it just didn’t work out so he could move on knowing that he’d tried. Weir went back to the world of computer programming and as a hobby, he continued to write and did so on his website. He posted lots of different work, really whatever he felt like writing about that day and his small community of readers would give him feedback. The Martian was one of the works he was writing as a serial, chapter-by-chapter, and it took him three years from 2009 to 2012 to complete it. His readers loved The Martian but didn’t like reading it on his website so they asked him to make an ebook version of it. He made an ebook and posted it on his website. His readers yet again provided him with some feedback that they love that there’s an ebook version but they would really love it if it was located in an ebook store where they could more easily download it. He self-published to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. He wanted to offer it to his readers for free, as he had always done with the story on his website, however Amazon doesn’t allow free ebooks. So, he set the price at $0.99, the absolute lowest possible price you’re allowed to charge for an ebook. One thing led to another and sales started to snowball. The book was passed around from friend to friend and landed in the hands of a literary agent. He read it, loved it and called Weir to help him work out the printed book deal. Around the same time, 20th Century Fox called and wanted to purchase the film rights. Both deals were finalized within four days of each other. So while Weir had spent three focused years trying to make his publishing dream a reality through traditional means, he had inadvertently backed up into it when he least expected it, in the most delightful and endearing story possible. (Is someone writing this stuff down? Someone needs to write a book about this!) Weir’s closing thoughts in the talk were this: the publishing industry has been difficult to break into for hundreds of years. Only in the last 15 years has the wide-spread use of the Internet and self-publishing platforms allowed authors to write and share their work without anyone’s permission. In other words, write your book and don’t wait for anyone to tell you otherwise.

But self publishing isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of time and effort to develop a work of fiction or nonfiction and then write, rewrite, edit, rewrite again and so on until the work is ready for publication. In a guest lecture to my book publishing students in 2018, former Director of Kobo Writing Life, Christine Munroe, explained that the self publishing market is a very long tail. If you picture a graph where the y (vertical) axis represents popularity (units or dollar value sold) and the x (horizontal) axis represents the all-time sales rank of a published book based on a ranking like you can find on Amazon, the best selling and therefore most profitable books in the self publishing world are relatively few and the vast majority of books exist in the far-reaching long tail. In other words, there are a few books on top who make millions doing it and there are many, many more who make some, very little or virtually no money. Taking into consideration all extremes, the mean revenue for a self-published book is… (drum roll please…) about $350. Total. Forever.

However, self-publishing also doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. There are ‘hybrid’ publishing options for authors, where, for example, a trade publisher buys the rights to a book in one country and the author self publishes that same book in every other country. There are no hard rules; just creative solutions to get the right content into the hands of the right readers.

If, after hearing all of this, you’re still interested in self publishing, Munroe offers up ‘The 3 P’s of Self Publishing Success’:

  1. Practice - rule of 3 (you need 3 books to build a readership)

  2. Patience - overnight success takes time

  3. Persistence - write your NEXT great book; keep trying new things

Whether you choose to try your luck with a traditional publishing route and have the support of professionals massaging and marketing your work OR try your luck with self publishing, which removes the red tape but there’s little-to-no professional support or any way to cut through the digital noise, both avenues require ‘trying your luck’. Yes, there’s skill involved, but as an author you have to have a willingness to accept that you might be creating something that only a handful of people will ever read. But, on the flip side, it can work out; just ask Mr. Weir or Ms. Rowling.

But it’s one thing to try your hand at publishing under normal, everyday circumstances and constraints, but what about trying to publish today. As in, right now. As Charles Dickens’ aptly states in the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Coming in hot, here’s the final trend...

Hot Topic #4: Publishing In a Pandemic

As Ross so eloquently put it in a classic episode of Friends (which also turned out to be the unofficial word of the year in 2020): PIVOT! PIVOT! And this is exactly what many publishers have had to do this year, some to thrive and some to simply survive.

In an enlightening podcast episode entitled Publishing in a Pandemic Special from the Media Voices podcast recorded in April 2020, the three person team discusses what it means to be a publisher in a pandemic. They cited an interesting case study chronicled by the Nieman lab of what it means to be a publisher with a paywall during the pandemic. The Atlantic decided that it was more important to publish important, and potentially life saving, information about the coronavirus for free and lift the paywall on this content than it was to keep it behind paywalls. While a case can be made that publishers still have bills to pay and essentials such as food and shelter aren’t free so why should information about the virus in articles typically encased within paywalls, however I think a better argument can be made about the moral responsibility of big-name publishers to provide this valuable, factual information in an age where fake news runs rampant and a huge percentage of the American population doesn’t trust traditional media outlets (according to The State of Digital Publishing, in 2020 a mere 41% of Americans trust mass media outlets). For their free COVID content, The Atlantic was rewarded indirectly by seeing a huge surge in the number of digital subscriptions. Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg sent an email to his staff that read:

“We have never, in the 163-year history of this magazine, had an audience like we had in March: 87 million unique visitors to our site, and more than 168 million pageviews. The number of unique visitors is astonishing — more than double the previous one-month record. But the most notable statistic, the one with possibly the greatest salience for The Atlantic’s future, is this: Your work has brought in more than 36,000 new subscribers over the past four weeks, even as we have lifted paywall restrictions on our coronavirus coverage.”

Bringing on 36,000 subscribers to any digital publication is impressive, never mind in 4 weeks… during a pandemic. Goldberg attributes the success to a number of factors, including the redesign of the magazine (starting in December 2019), paywall architecture and what he calls “high-touch copy editing and fact checking” within the publications digital content.

The Media Voices podcast hosts, Chris, Peter and Esther, made a number of excellent points in their coverage, including the fact that it’s obvious, now more than ever before, that publishers need diverse monetization strategies and can’t rely only on subscriptions or only on hosting events or only on advertising revenue. They must determine many revenue streams so that there are fail safes in place when a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime health pandemic shakes up the entire world and the publishing realm within it.

Let’s look at an ebook statistic for a minute.

In an article from The Guardian from November 2020 entitled Pandemic drives ebook and audiobook sales by UK publishers to all-time high, author Mark Sweney details that the ebook industry has suffered six straight years of a decline in sales, the industry peaking in the UK in 2014. In 2020, UK publishers saw ebook sales hit an all-time high, up 17%. While the UK saw print sales decline by 17% in 2020, the rise in ebook sales doesn’t make up for the loss because the print sales account for approximately 80% of the overall publishing market. So a gain of 17% in a small percentage of the market doesn’t make up for the losses in a large percentage of the market.

It’s no surprise that 2020 was a tumultuous year for the publishing industry. It will be incredibly interesting to see the ways in which an industry that is hundreds of years old, continues to reinvent itself in 2021 and beyond. And I suppose that moves us nicely along to our third and final episode looking to digital publishing’s future.


Podington Bear - This Little Piggy

Drum Roll - HoBoTrails

Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle

Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash



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