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Digital Publishing in an Age of Convergence Series: Change is the New Constant

By Lauren Sozio

The stable hierarchies of the printed page—one of the defining norms of the world—are being superseded by the rush of impulses through freshly minted circuits.

Sven Birkerts, 1994

Over fifteen years ago, literary critic Sven Birkerts (1994) grimly forecast the “Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.”  His nostalgic nod to an orderly past echoes the sentiments of many publishers faced with the transition from bricks-and-mortar to virtual cloud. Because books embody a cultural tradition on levels beyond literacy, as they transport heritage, knowledge, fiction, and fantasy from page to consciousness, textual digitization has struck a nerve and elicited passionate debate.  Industry reports brim with exaggerated accounts of a print revolution, announcing that the world has not seen such a profound transformation of the written word since the Gutenberg Press.  Although the accounts may be a bit self-congratulatory, the written word has morphed from flatness into a multi-dimensional space that cannot be overlooked or underestimated.

In 2010, PC World announced the “dawn” of the tablet (Miller, 2010), while Gartner recorded the production of 17 million tablets.  In 2011, Consumer Electronics Show hosted a panel titled “The Great Slate Debate” (Miller, 2011), an indicator that tablets had gone from infancy to adulthood in less than a year.  By year end 2011, Gartner (2011) estimates that at least 100 different tablets will be in the market worldwide, and projects production to reach 187 million tablets by 2015.   Forrester projects that eBook sales will reach 2.8 billion in 2015, nearly triple the recorded sales for 2010 (McQuivey, 2010).  Growing fast and furiously, these devices are integrating television, computing, and communicating in unprecedented ways. The notion of having a device perform a single task seems absurd in the age of booming bandwidth. The book is no longer a closed unit, but an open debate subject to editing, remixing, overwriting and undoing.

Who is today’s Gutenberg, capitalizing on these “newly minted circuits?” (Birkerts, 1994). Is it Amazon’s pioneer, Jeff Bezos, who flipped the publishing paradigm on its head? Or Apple’s guru, Steve Jobs–a computing prophet? Bezos turned publishing into a “consumer-centric” structure that operates “backward from customers” (Mangalindan, 2010, para. 25), and made it perfectly clear that this format is not only culturally but economically unignorable.  By late July 2010, Kindle-formatted books surpassed hardcover sales (see Amazon Press Release, 2010). And in 2011, Amazon was expected to sell over 12 million Kindles (Frommer, 2011).  The tablet is quickly transforming from novelty to necessity.

Last year, as the Kindle became a more versatile, economic package, Apple launched the next wave of readers.  But the iPad was not about making the Kindle obsolete.  A reader is just one of its many functions. Jobs was after something greater–altering user preferences and habits (Yoffie & Kim, 2010, p. 12-13). The iPad emerged to both skepticism and praise.  Was it a “game changer” (Yoffie & Kim, 2010, p. 12) or mere accessory?  To some publishers, it was the potential savior of their dissolving business model; to others it was a threat to the agency model (Yoffie & Kim, 2010, p. 13), and was driving many traditional roles and practices into redundancy. To users it represented a new beauty, as machine and man were separated by a mere touch, or in tech terms, an interface heartbeat. To industry insiders, it meant the death of the netbook and possibly the PC (Yoffie & Kim, 2010, p. 13). Inspite of all these technological advances, it is easy to forget that content has driven the revolution.  A tablet falls flat without text.

Because technology is evolving more rapidly than ever before, business models, social patterns, and economic trends are insignificant.  By the time this paper concludes, a new start-up may have risen from Silicon Valley or Shanghai, throwing speculations and hypotheses into a tailspin.  The history that we’ve created is easily undone by two keyboard strokes.

The proceeding sections establish a conceptual framework and elucidates the key voices of convergence theory.  In particular, the section examines those who take a political-economic approach to the process by addressing the structural constraints on and strategic motivations of the actors involved. These are broad concepts and this paper attempts to narrow the material in keeping with the central subject: the relationship between technology and the publishing industry.

In the proceeding sections I examine the transition from an industrial to an information economy, as linear structures are obscured by chaotic networks: the tangible becomes intangible, hierarchical firms dissolve into multi-nodal, consumer-centric structures, and proprietary formats open up to peers.  Despite the promises of this new digital era, it remains to be seen whether the same powerful conglomerates that ran the industrial society will remain at the helm, whether a new order of team players will effectively restructure organizations in their favor (see Castells, 2007), or whether they all will converge in hybrid harmony (see Jenkins, 2006).

This new information economy, a contested term in and of itself, is rife with contradictions. Do media operate vertically or across platforms? Is data exchange more or less efficient? Is market strength more unified or further fragmented? And are the primary actors conglomerate or community, or government or grassroots?  Underlying these complexities is the contest between the convergence (see Jenkins 2004, 2006) of media: will new media replace the old or will the old simply evolve and adapt? Economist Joseph Schumpeter suggests that innovations are disruptions to “equilibrium” (1989, p. xvi), and implies that all will eventually return to a static level.  But perhaps this is a dialogical process of conversations to be had, irresolute ideological dilemmas that, as Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983) suggests, may never stabilize.

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