Of digital publishing and goldfish

A Guest Post by Sara lloyd

Sara is the Digital Publisher at Pan Macmillan and you can read her thoughts and those of her team at The Digitalist.

I never thought I’d hear myself saying this, but being a ‘digital person’ in a trade publishing house is rather akin to being a goldfish. I mean, not as in I’m orange and scaley and can only hold things in my mind for a millisecond. Well, maybe the last thing actually. But as in, it often feels like you’re swimming around in this clear bowl; that you’re kind of exposed to all these eyes examining you from the outside world, judging your every move from a vantage point of actually being at least as clueless as you are as to where things will All End Up for publishing in a digital age.

This is great when you boldly come up with controversial visions of the future as in my Publisher’s Manifesto [Part 1, 2, 3] – whether or not any of it will turn out to be correct is irrelevant; it was all stirring stuff and critical of publishers in many ways and so it was roundly applauded. But sometimes it can also become very tiresome.

Thing is, there’s this expectation that all us Digital Publishers should be investing our generous R+D budgets, huge staff resources and inordinate amounts of spare time (spot the ironic tone) into developing lots of ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ digital stuff. It won’t be entirely clear what the commercial model is for any of it or even whether it makes strategic sense but we must EXPERIMENT! We must stop being so lethargic and plain old-fashioned and stupid. Thus the hoo-ha when publishers were roundly ticked off for not spending any time or effort building a reading app for the iPhone.

Well, you know what I thought about that. And what’s happened since then? As I predicted a couple of reading apps have risen to the surface as particularly popular. My favourite, Stanza, supports the emerging ebook standard format .epub as well as plain old PDF, HTML and various other formats. It’s been downloaded over 200,000 times. It’s free. Anything we’ve converted into any of the supported formats, as long as it’s DRM-free, you can download it and read it on your iPhone. Using Stanza. So, go figure.

The fact is, the reality of being a Digital publisher in a trade publishing house is that you spend a disproportionate amount of your time trying to keep abreast of what the Next Big Thing is going to be and the rest of your time negotiating contracts to even get the rights to begin to do the most basic things. Like, digitising our content in a way which keeps it flexible and as open to future possibilities as we can. It’s not sexy, it’s not cool, but it has to be done. We have a hill to climb and many obstacles on the way. Give us a break!

Sara Lloyd
Head of Digital Publishing
Pan Macmillan

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3 comments

  1. I’m in a MS Publishing program, and we talk about the ‘digital’ future frequently, and I think it was really interesting to hear it from the other side.

  2. If you talk to readers, most of them will strongly indicate a preference for reading on paper, not on screen. That makes a lot of sense. Paper is very convenient, relatively cheap, durable, etc. Reading on-screen is generally a nuisance.

    I believe that digital publishing won’t really take off until we start to think outside of the box, expanding our definition of “a book” and making full use of the power of today’s computers and the Internet.

    Digital publications have to offer special features or benefits to overcome the inherent disadvantage of being read on-screen. It’s not enough to just digitize a static page–we have to use the computer to do something special, something that cannot be done on paper.

    For examples of what we’re doing along those lines with interactive college computer textbooks and a newly released historical non-fiction book, visit http://www.mediatechnicscorp.com and http://www.sixstarsinthewindow.com.

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