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Books: Byte-size Publishing

June 5, 2013

After many years in slow growth, digital publishing has in the last few years sprung to life. The rapid growth of e-books and of e-book readers, tablets and mobile devices has surprised many. This is despite the fact that Project Guttenberg, the grandfather of the eBook movement, is now 42 years old.

The growth of Amazon has similarly impacted the book trade and the high street book store. What happened to music with iTunes and the iPOD a decade ago is now happening in book publishing.

At the same time, the increasing amount of “free content” on the Web is a challenge for those who earn a living from publishing, be they authors or publishers. The argument that “Content is King” may sound intellectually worthy, but brute economics may be stating otherwise.

The UK has many Small and Medium sized publishers. Powered by the English language, the UK has a substantial number of firms among large corporate as well as the SME sector. The challenge that is faced is to overcome the business model disruption that the sector faces and to look for new revenue streams for authors and publishers.

What needs to be recognised is that the book trade is complex with many niches and differing goals.

First, the motivation of authors is very broad. Some, maybe a few can earn a substantial income from their writing. However, others justify their time for other reasons. Management consultants may write books, not directly for the income, welcome as that may be, but for building a personal brand and reputation. Others may wish to influence an agenda, say in politics or the environment. Alongside this we have the book of the TV show, the celebrity cook, gardener and others where the book is part of the portfolio of offerings.

The Technology Strategy Board is funding a Proof of Concept for a notion of “Byte-size Publishing”. This phase focuses on the Business and Professional Book Publishing sector.

The observation that started this programme is that “context, not content is King”.

Let’s start by looking at the case of the business student. For this week’s assignment there is a chapter in one book and a couple of chapters in another that are relevant. In this context a student may not wish to buy two books but wants specific content. If they find it useful they may subsequently buy more content, but they are unlikely to wish to buy in advance in the hope that it will be useful.

Similarly, an academic remarked that what he wanted for students studying marketing on the web was some marketing content, some design content and some technical content. Given the speed at which the business is changing and the technology is evolving, so called standard texts have an uneconomic shelf life.

Is this an unmet need that publishers and authors could address to create revenues?
In the past, authors, most famously Dickens, published initially in weekly parts, with the books coming later.

For publishing to thrive in the digital book era, will Byte-size publishing be another example of “ Back to the Future”?

(Written by Chris Yapp)

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