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034: Digital Publishing's Future with Jason Lisi

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

You’ve arrived at the future of digital publishing! Welcome! In between taking our self-driving hover cars to soccer practice and comforting our emotional artificially intelligent house robots after a particularly hard day, what will the future of digital publishing look like?

There are lots of possibilities (and lots of predictions) as to what the future of digital publishing could look like. If you haven’t yet seen IDEO’s The Future of the Book (the link is available in the show notes at, please check it out now. Run, don’t walk - it’s incredible! It details three concepts for what the future of the book could look like, including ‘Coupland’ (which allows users to connect within their professional networks to find new books and build shared libraries alongside their colleagues), ‘Nelson’ (in which readers have access to multiple viewpoints and and commentary within a digital book’s interface, reinforcing the central role of books as the carriers of knowledge), and ‘Alice’ (facilitating nonlinear and participatory narratives, turning traditional storytelling upside down with technologies like geolocation to unlock pieces of the story, allowing readers to enter a whole new world).

The one that intrigues me the most is Alice. Building on IDEO’s initial concept, I think that enabling creative collaboration among online communities to reimagine works of literary fiction (especially works that are freely available for use in the public domain like the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) could re-invigorate the stories and find new audiences the world over.

Furthermore, how cool would it be for readers to participate in non-traditional collaboration with a long-deceased author by adding sub-layers and new context to their stories, remixing and having a hand in our new world of participatory culture? Retelling a story with new media, helping to create new narratives (and crowdsourcing new narratives) and then communicating them from the perspectives of the characters through digital media channels commonly reserved only for friends and family (ex: texting, social media) could be an unparalleled experience in storytelling through digital means.

One possible way I see it executed is to have the text exist on a website where the reader opts-in at the beginning of the experience with their phone number and social media handles. As they read through the story there are prompts throughout where they can hear from different characters via their devices.

Imagine stepping into the digital world of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz where, as you’re reading the story, the Cowardly Lion is sending you frazzled text messages about his need to find you ASAP. The Scarecrow is sending you the latest Bernie Sanders’ meme and the Tin Man’s joints are too locked-up to text until you geolocate to the nearest mechanic’s shop to re-lubricate his limbs before he can use his phone. Even Toto’s in on the action - he’s got his own Instagram following of nearly 1M.

This could help deepen connections between the characters and the readers, as well as between online fan fiction communities and the authors' works. While my interpretation of the technical roll-out of a website is a little, how do you say... ‘basic’, this idea could be interwoven into current e-reading platforms and authors could even write their stories with these additional sublayers and interactions in mind. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure book combined with fan fiction told through digital media and devices to deepen readers’ connections to the story, authors and their reading communities. While versions of this have been tried (Seed Story and Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal both come to mind), publishers have yet to go all in on this multi-layered, intertwined, collective storytelling experience.

Perhaps it’s telling that IDEO’s The Future of the Book is now 11 years in the past. Feeling incredibly progressive and promising in 2010, no publisher has really run with any of these ideas. Perhaps the return on investment is too suspect or the sheer magnitude of transforming a static story into a multi-layered, multi-faceted narrative adventure isn’t yet worth the effort or seen as necessary in order to compete. Whatever the case, I think there are still so many brave new worlds in digital publishing that haven’t been explored yet in any way, shape or form.

While it’s fun to dream up possibilities of where the future of storytelling through digital publishing may lead, let’s come back down to reality. I’ve asked Jason Lisi, Chair of the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada to join me in today’s episode. He’s a technical whiz in the world of the graphic arts, specifically as it relates to PDF standards. Jason is an active member of the Ghent Workgroup whose work revolves around PDF and the standards that build on the PDF format. He is also a subject matter expert for the Organization of International Standardization (ISO) that develops and maintains the PDF and PDF/X standards. We all know (and love!) PDFs as a user-friendly, powerful file format for everyday personal and professional use. PDFs can be published, printed, shared, used for collaboration, authenticated and more, which makes them a powerhouse of a universal file format. They allow users to quite literally “get on the same page” and PDFs play a huge role in the digital publishing landscape so I’ve asked Jason to come here today to help us more thoroughly understand where the PDF is headed.

Key takeaways from my conversation with Jason:

  • A PDF is like any other file format, however it’s strengths lie in the fact that it’s an open standard, consists of vector and raster objects, platform agnostic and based on the page description language PostScript

  • When we speak about PDF in general terms, we are actually referring to PDF as specified in the ISO 32000 standard

  • PDF/X restricts the feature set of PDF to include only those features that are acceptable for print production, eliminating uncertainty and better predicting the successful output of PDF files for professional in print and publishing

  • PDF/UA (Universal Access) means that those requiring the use of assistive devices will have unobstructed access to the contents of that PDF file and for the most part are WCAG 2.0 compliant

  • PDF/VT (Variable and Transactional) was designed specifically for variable data printing and is ideal for graphic rich black and white or colour files that recognizes repeated elements and only requires them to be RIPped once (R.O.O.M. - RIP once, output many)

  • PDFs have evolved to meet the growing demands of industry and Jason predicts that PDF will need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of society moving forward

  • You would never expect an EPUB file that’s reflowable and great for mobile to act like a PDF file, so why would we expect a PDF file to behave like an EPUB file? If PDFs were dynamic and adaptive, they no longer would have the characteristic of reliable and consistent appearance.

  • PDF is a tool - even the best screwdriver in the world won’t saw through wood because that’s not what it’s designed to do

  • Jason sees no reason why AI would not play a role in the future of publishing (D.O.O.M. principle – design once, output many)

  • If the PDF were human, it would be a hip 20 something in terms of its relative age and stage

  • If there is any file format that could enjoy eternal life, it would be PDF

Music: Podington Bear - Electric Car

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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