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In the beginning there was text. And still is. Someone must create something. In the world of journals there are pictures and layout added. And maybe some ads. This concept of a journal has been around since the days of Gutenberg. This is, to put it simple, the ontology of a journal. This ontology is not going to change, although the pictures might start to move.
To understand the media landscape of today we must change our point of viewpoint. The world of printed media is today going through very rapid changes. To make it simple all these changes are in one way or another connected to digitalisation and the Internet. First of all we must understand that these changes have an impact on the entire sector of print. This means newspapers, journals, magazines, books and comics. It will affect the worldwide media conglomerates as well as the small fanzines. In the words of Joseph Schumpeter is there a massive creative destruction going on. Someone will lose and someone will gain.
The last years’ debate has been focused on blaming the so-called pirates for the destruction of the healthy media business. The argument runs as follows: ”Before Pirate Bay everything was working very well, and if we just get rid of these gangsters the world of media will function smoothly again.” Quotes like that has been heard from many of the top-level officials in the media business connected to the trial in Stockholm where the funders of Pirate Bay where sentenced to jail for ”assistance to copyright violation”. For me a quote like that tells me that the person hasn’t understood a thing of what is going on. It’s more fundamental and in many ways more complicated than piracy and copyright violation. We are living in times of a very rapid change that will affect us all, but most of all the big media companies. They must change how they act because they have a tendency to overprice, blame the new technology and threat possible customers. The second lesson from the post- pirate debate is that there is actually many different ways to earn money in this new “new economy”. The guru in this area is once again Chris Anderson whose sequel to The long tail is called Free. In the new digital economy you must make friends with your possible clients and make every transaction as simple as possible. But most important is to find a price that is ok for the customers to pay. Anyone who doesn’t do that, small or big, will most likely be on the loosing side.
With the focus on piracy many other important questions has been discussed to little. The main thing is the art of separation. It has been to easy for both the large media conglomerates and the lawmakers to have the debate focusing on their issues. There are a couple of things going around at the same time, but they must be separated and discussed in their own context. For the sake of artistic freedom and creativity some of these changes must be embraced, but others must be despised. To understand the future of printed media we must discuss them separately. According to me there are four things going around at the same time: New technology, business models going out of business, media convergence and a possible change in the reading habits.
Since the computer has become portable everything is on the move. The transistors are becoming smaller and smaller in a speed that is almost breaking Moore’s law. The last years has seen a boom in Smartphones and tablet computers. Apple has set the standards with the iPhone and iPad. With the tablets and the new eBook readers we are probably facing a, if not the, disruptive technology for print. When the iPad was released it was greeted as “THE THING”. More so the thing that will save the printed media. But that was not the case. It was made with the general purpose of helping people interact with the Internet in a more easy way. In an easy and very accessible way you could now use the same device for games, video, TV, calendar, social media and the traditional printed media. And many things more, never thought or invented yet. With this new technology the printed media is just one thing amongst many. Manuel Castells said over ten years ago that we now face changes as big as the invention of the moving types. And it’s connected with a major evolution in media both social, digital and printed.
But the new technology is not just the devices. Today there is an unlimited shelf space in your most local and accessible bookstore (your computer). The online bookstores are having both better assortment and a lower price. At the same time is Google on the way of digitalizing almost everything. Some of this will be free to use, others not. Digital print is evolving and will quite soon be an option for everything besides the crème de la crème of artists-books. Print on demand is gaining momentum. Epub has become the standard for ebooks. An Espresso bookmachine will soon be available in every big city. Htlm5 is on the move as we speak.
The thing is that almost everything is undergoing a technological change, at the same time. It includes how we produce a text, how we read a text, how we distribute a text and how we sell a text. What will happen in the coming years is therefore a very complex process. An invention or a ”breakthrough” at one end of this chain will surely affect all the other parts of the chain. So it’s therefore impossible to talk about one without the other. This thinking leads me to the following conclusion: The technology to come will most likely contain three different things merged together namely the hardware, software and a business-model.
To understand the future of print we must take a detour to the music industry. Each and every conference about the future of print starts with the last years’ history of the music industry. The developments might be similar or not. Today it doesn’t matter. If everybody believes it’s true it will become true, no matter what.
The entire record industry was focused on a glimmering piece of silver inside a plastic box. Selling compact discs was like taking candy from a small child. It followed to a large extent the logic of the vinyl record. You knew how to record, promote and sell a band. It was a logic with large corporate dinosaurs and small independent enthusiasts. They where separated and had different places in the food chain, but they where also connected with licensing agreements. The different roles where known and the overall logic accepted by everyone. The incredible sales figure of the CD-years had two parts. One was all the new records. But the bulk of sales was to a large extent the old records, but with better sound. The music industry earned money, but also, for the first time so did the artists. To quote Mick Jagger: “People only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.” In the language of 2012: Both the content providers and the industry made money. Everybody was happy. Then, in the mid 1990’s came mp3 and Napster. Apple released the iPod and whoops! the business model of the last 35 years was obsolete. It took some years for the dinosaurs to understand it. In the meantime they made enemies with most of their costumers by neglecting that the shining piece of silver was just a transitional phase on the way from vinyl to digital content. The record shops almost disappeared when the computer became both the device for playing the music and the place of downloading it (paid or ”free”). Apples iTunes is today the largest seller of music in the world with the retail chain Wal-Mart as number two. The next step is computer programs like Spotify where you ”rent” the music by listening to commercials or subscribe via a monthly payment.
Now the world of print is entering the digital age. The big media companies have an answering book to look at, but just with the “don’ts” and not the “do’s”. The most common business solution, so far, is to connect a device to a store and vice versa. This is the business model that made iTunes into a success. The most common e-readers, Kindle and NOOK, follow this concept. In the case of newspapers and journals there are a zig-zaging back and forth between paid/unpaid and locked/unlocked content. There will most likely be very mixed use of business models depending on content, size and location. The unicorn hasn’t been found yet, if it even exists.
One of the last years’ most interesting books about the future of media is Henry Jenkins The Convergence Culture. The main thesis is that our traditional media forms are now merging together. In it’s most simplistic way you can take a look at a Smartphone or tablet computer. It is not dedicated to TV, radio, video, games, journals, newspapers, GPS, social media, web browsing, maps, photo or writing text. It is a mixture of all these things together. Some of these programs support each other in very interesting ways. Finding your way through the streets of Tokyo with an offline, but GPS- connected, travel book makes it way easier than ever before. The convergence between the GPS and the traditional travel guide improves them both. In a couple of years, if not months, it will also converge with the camera in what is called augmented reality. Have you ever wondered how it will sound when the The Hound of the Baskervilles is coming up from behind? Don’t worry, it will soon be available at Amazon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band has just been released as an enhanced eBook. Most likely will your eBook soon start to shake, rattle and roll. The legendary producer and ambient pioneer Brian Eno has together with the software designer Peter Chilvers created an app called Bloom. It’s a mixture between an instrument, a game and a music player. Björk released her latest album/ project/piece of art Biophilia as an app for iPhone and iPad.
But we must not limit the media convergence to just a mixture of different kind of digital devices and new technology. It will also change the way we tell stories for each other and hopefully the stories themselves. At last years Frankfurt Buchmesse (the globally most influential stage for the print industry) the word “content provider” was widely used. The writer of a book has turned into a provider of content. In the stalls there where many discussions if story x or y should first be used as a book, movie or a computer game. From the publishing industries point of view this might be crucial question, i.e. how to maximise the value of a story as a commodity. This might be the correct question if you limit the idea of media convergence to a monetary perspective. But the monetary side of media convergence is just one side of the coin. In the coming years much of the most interesting art, media and culture is going to be created at the crossroad. The traditional division of labour must be abandoned. Commercial companies must start new branches that allows journalists, artists and programmers to work together. The state funding for journalism and art that still exists must understand these changes. They must be flexible to understand that many of the most interesting projects are not going to be easily defined as just one thing. One of the benefits of Jenkins book is the many stories of cross media storytelling. The story starts as a film, moves to a comic book, flows into a computer game and ends up in film again. To understand the full complexity of the story you must move between the different medias. The creative challenges will be how to work between different fields and contexts, journalistically and artistically.
In each and every article about the future of print there is an interview with someone. Ordinary Joe is asked a question if he or she has read an eBook. If the answer is “Yes”, the world of books, as we know it, is disappearing with a blink of the eye. If the answer is “No”, the eBooks are a bad idea in itself. This is, of course, the typical bad journalism. First of all is it a non-true dichotomy. Second, and most important is that the opinion of one person doesn’t matter; the important thing to consider is the overall trend. Today the entire print industry knows that the reading habits are going to change, but no one knows in what direction. Epub is most likely the mp3 for books, but it’s not sure if it is going to be the technology that makes the readers to abandon traditional books. If traditional books even will be abandoned.
What the business is talking about today is the percentage of eBooks sold connected to the entire stock of sold books. The US sales are today 10, 15, 20 up to 40%, depending on the month. The devices used are mostly Kindle, Nook & iPad. UK is a about a year “behind” the US and the rest of Europe almost two. But no one really knows. In Sweden the eBook market “came into being” when a bestseller was sold out in print. The book was, of course, “Jag Zlatan” (I’m Zlatan) by the footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It has a percentage of almost 10% of the entire sales figure.
I’m Zlatan has also, by it’s success, forced the Swedish libraries to ask itself many complicated questions. Some of them are economic, some are technical and some are ontological. First is that system of reimbursement for eBook borrows from libraries to publishers and writers doesn’t work anymore. The current system almost brooked down of the sheer amount of copies borrowed. The next question is the ontological. Should an eBook be considered as a file or as a book? A file can very easily be copied and distributed to those who want to ”borrow” it from a library, but the book is limited to the amount of physical copies bought by the library. How the result in this case will be is still an open question, but an answer gets more urgent day by day. The technical question was the easiest one because there are many different companies who want a piece of the market. Adobe, among others, has created a system that makes the eBook ”disappear” when time of borrowing is finished. The technical question mixed with the ontological and the economical one. The case of “I’m Zlatan” has showed that you can’t wait. The reading habits are about to change and we must have asked ourselves a couple of very crucial questions. Otherwise will some of the things that we want to support, like libraries, possibly be lost in transition.
An incredible amount of money is going to be spent on crap. Nobody wants to read an eBook or an online journal on an ugly device with bad functioning liquid ink. Nobody wants to read a badly converted eBook with inconsistent line breaks.
We are now living in a transitional phase. We know what the past looks like, but the future is full with unknown unknowns (to quote Donald Rumsfeld). It you surf the Internet, attend conferences or do proper research about the future of print you are entering a Terra incognita filled with gold diggers. The gold diggers would have an ardent, almost religious, look in their eyes. They speak a language that very few understand. But the main message surely gets through: This is the future.
One conclusion is though evident. The beforehand separated artefacts, the book and the journal, is fading away and becomes merged together. As a reader on the Internet it is today very complicated to distinguish if the WordPress-made Internetsite has an origin with an ISSN or ISBN- number. The readers care about the quality of the content, not what it really ”is”. The ontological questions of what something really ”is” are something that the persons behind the WYSIWYG-editors is more concerned about. But this doesn’t make it an unimportant question, on the contrary. How to finance high quality text, investigating journalism, poetry and avant-garde experiments will be an even greater challenge. This means that we still need a cultural politics, but it must be able to distinguish quality on a greater variety of platforms.
The most common slogan is that the book needs to be available for reading on different devices. The book written on paper won’t disappear. Here is a major difference that distinguishes the music industry from the print industry. The book is an incredible good device for consuming text. The CD wasn’t the best tool to consume music. But besides the book no one really knows. A qualified guess is that the book will be complemented by the eBook and some kind of mobile xml-based application for Smartphones and tablet computers. Amazons Kindle and forthcoming Kindle Fire are surely very good e-reading devices, but they are not the new iPod. The iPod was the disruptive device that changed the music industry. It became easy and simple to listen to digital music. The quality of the sound improved and it was very easy to sort the music, create play lists and so on. Until the disruptive device for book reading has entered the market you will have to experiment.
And experiment you must do.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)