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Responding as an Industry to Digital Publishing Challenges

Posted on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 11:06 AM

The allure of digital publishing comes with threats to the actual role we play as publishers. Industry-wide solutions are needed. Are our existing professional organizations up to the challenge?

By William Dunkerley

As publishers, we're used to solving our own problems at the enterprise level. We have a history of being very independent in that respect. But now we face significant threats to our very role in the still unfolding digital information society. The function of publisher can be assumed by anyone with a computer and a good Internet connection. Where does that leave us?

Right now, it leaves us with little influence over our future. The transition to digital seems to be under the control of the designers of the various digital reading devices.

This is problematic, even in the short term. Sergey Panasenko, one of Russia's most experienced publishers, recently gave focus to this issue. He wrote:

I subscribe to a few weekly magazines on my iPad. It wasn't an easy task, I must admit, to figure out initially how to operate each of the apps. They all are organized differently, to say the least. Why on earth do I turn pages of magazine A from left to right, and magazine B from top to bottom? Some have a thesaurus, but not all. And zooming? Why does zoom sometimes work, and sometimes doesn't? And if it does, I've got to know for each different app, how to zoom. You'd think that zooming is zooming, wherever you want to do it. Think again!

These are problems I encounter as a reader. It's even more complex when as publishers we contemplate how to design apps for our publications. We've got to be sure they are convenient and easy to use, and that they not just look flashy.

Kindle Display Challenges

We experienced similar frustration a few years ago when trying to adapt content for the Kindle. I found that it is almost impossible to produce effective page designs and have them rendered faithfully on the Kindle platform. It's not just that an app for one publication will work one way while another publication's app works differently. With Kindle, your own content will display differently, depending on which Kindle device you use for viewing.

The Kindle doesn't adhere to normal typography conventions. You'd think that basics like spacing and alignment would be consistent. But they are not.

When we tried to bring these concerns to the attention of the Kindle publishing group, we were met with indifference. Their attitude seems to be that publishers should not be so fussy, and they should simply accept the Kindle's page-rendering inconsistencies without complaint.

For publishers, digital reading devices like the Kindle play the role of a substrate for content. We're used to being responsible for creating the experience readers receive when consuming our products. We're the ones who orchestrate how the words and images work together in communicating with the reader. If we lose control of the visual presentation, we will be losing the ability to refine and perfect our publications.

Finding a Solution

The solution, I believe, is for publishers to recognize this conflict that we're up against and take collective action. We need to preserve our ability to influence the experience a reader has when consuming our publications.

Two years ago, I presented this imperative to our leading professional organizations. I wrote to the Association of Magazine Media (formerly the Magazine Publishers of America) and Association Media and Publishing (formerly the Society of National Association Publications). I suggested that they develop and promote specifications that will set the standard for digital reading devices. But there was no response, and no apparent action. It seems to me that this issue is weightier than that of refining the names of their organizations, which they've obviously both done. If you're a member of either organization, perhaps you can ask them about this when it comes time to renew your membership.

The move to mobile editions seems to be steady but, for the moment, slow. Nonetheless, there is an important issue at stake. And it's hard to judge just when our current inability to provide optimal reader experiences on mobile devices will start inflicting serious harm.

The Stages of Digital Development

A recent survey by our sister publication, Editors Only, has shown that publishers are in varying stages of digital development. One respondent said, "We don't currently offer content for mobile users, and have no imminent plans to do so." That is a perspective that was shared by many.

Ava Caridad, editor of Spray Technology & Marketing, elucidated:

We are a B2B magazine that does not offer content for mobile users, and have no plans to do so. My former colleague at another B2B publication told me the same thing concerning his publication. A production manager I know at a major consumer magazine informed me that that magazine used to have an app (with, I believe, both re-purposed and original content), but it was discontinued. He left that magazine to join another one with an app, as he felt that not having an app was an unhealthy thing for a magazine.

And Scott Jamieson, group publisher at Annex Business Media, reported:

We currently do not offer mobile-specific content for any of our 40 plus B2B brands. Our newest sites are built to be mobile-friendly (Apple/Android), and we are looking at abridged mobile content for a few sites that get a high volume of mobile traffic. But the hurdle is editorial workload. Currently we post news items or Web exclusives, create e-newsletters weekly or semi-weekly, and use social media (Facebook/Twitter). Add to that video and of course magazines, and the odd event or special project, and our editors are busy folks.

So overall, our migration into greater digital involvement is still in a formative stage. That means the time is ripe for us to preserve our prerogatives as publishers, assure our ability to continue serving as the architects of our content, and begin setting standards for digital reading devices. We can't accomplish that individually in isolation. We need to act collectively. But are our professional organizations up to the task?

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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