Future of the Book conference might be about more than the future of the book

Through my work with the Digital Publishing Forum, I’ve been putting together a programme for that organisation’s major conference event this year. It’s called the Future of the Book and the conference programme has just gone live. Take a look.

But it’s looking increasingly like the future of the book might also be the future of newspapers and magazines, with much of the development work that’s been happening to digitise books now coming to the rescue of the beleagured newspaper industry and probably magazines too.

Perhaps “rescue” is a bit too big a claim but the essential economic problem that newspapers have to solve is how to bring in new paying readers to their digital editions. Because newspapers’ real problem isn’t a readership problem (which will be higher than ever if you add both print and online editions), but an advertising problem.

Books, of course, have never had advertising to subsidise their content and, in my opinion, never will have the significant advertising revenue that newspapers and magazines have. So solving the paid digital reading problem is at the very heart of all the digital publishing initiatives coming from the book world.

And, just as we’ve shared the printing press over the centuries, there’s no reason why the print media (ie reading) shouldn’t share digital platforms for creating and distributing content. Certainly, moves such as Amazon’s rumoured big-screen Kindle, building on its early success selling newspaper subscriptions to Kindle owners, points the way. [UPDATE 7 May 2009: Amazon rumour now fact, Amazon Kindle DX launched, Newsweek item].

The first big internet wave, the worldwide web, has grown up in a PC-based world with advertising- and venture capital-fueled business models. This has left the book out in the cold — you can’t read for long on a PC screen, and advertising is a non-starter for books (for reasons of ad effectiveness, not ethical problems). Perversely for newspapers, it’s proved how much people love reading digitally but has shown that advertisers don’t quite share their enthusiasm.

You might notice I’ve been focusing on newspapers rather than magazines, though many of the problems and the digital opportunities are shared. But magazines have some specific differences that are important. They have a lot more of their advertising revenue in national brand advertising which has been slower to move to the web (probably widespread internet video will propel this migration). Newspapers, on the other hand, are much more dependent on local classified and retail advertising which, particularly the former, has been much faster moving to the web.  Because of their focus on brand advertising, and readers’ expectations of high quality production values, magazines will want their digital editions to be much more sophisticated than the current basic, black and white ebook world. But chances are, when they’re ready, they’ll be piggy-backing on essentially the same platforms as books are pioneering today.

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