Personally, I blame Marjorie Scardino. When she announced her retirement, this statement, included amongst her comments, might have been intended to encourage the Pearson troops and point them towards the challenges of the future and the Golden City on the Hill. Unfortunately, her comments also reached the wider publishing community, and encouraged that sort of complacency and fired up the sort of debate that the British publisher appears to love, since it enables him to conclude that it is all too complex and no one knows a guaranteed route to success, so it may be wiser not to try until matters have clarified a little more. To those, like me, who have spent over 40 years declaiming that experiment followed by re-iteration is the only way to go, and that you go nowhere in the digital world until you have failed at something digital, this is, at its least, a little frustrating. You see, I know that we have arrived and that we left the foothills behind in 1999. Not in education, I agree: Dame Marjorie’s brilliant step was to see past the publishers and address the real problems of education markets – administration, assessment, marking, communication with parents, teacher skills etc. The textbook was a small market which could be left until the infrastructure could be digitalized and then Pearson would have a head start in plugging their content into that infrastructure.

Dame Marjorie (aided and abetted by Anthony Forbes Watson) bought Dorling Kindersley for Pearson. Embedded into that company was real digital publishing. In 1996 DK was producing CD-ROM-based encyclopaedias and reference works that were a delight, for their day, in terms of interactivity and multimedia development. They were on CD-ROM only because online did not have the bandwidth, and it is noteworthy now that only with ePub3 has the eBook caught up with the mid ’90s CD-ROM. Yet, as a non-executive director of DK at the time, I was sure that we were doing real digital publishing for very large numbers of real users. So when I saw a report by Linda Bennett in Bookcrunch of a seminar by Cognizant entitled ” Digital Publishing: Still in the foothills?” (27 November) I frayed slightly round the edges. Really good speakers, but in a meeting where a questionner asks “whether publishers who engaged with such innovative ventures as digital development) could still truly call themselves publishers” one wonders whether Publishing will not always be in the Foothills, wandering around, lost and resentful and playing a game of their own with ever dwindling audiences of paper-lovers.

This is not to say that valuable points were not made. Mark Marjurey’s comment that “content won’t cut it much longer” is important, if it reminds us that it is not content per se that matters, but the context in which we deliver it that will drive our future developments. When someone asked “Is it true that social networking doesn’t sell books?” they were reminded that it is word of mouth that sells books (and presumably as effectively on Facebook as on Amazon). When someone said that the rentals model, the disappearing book that dissolves as you read it, “sounds bonkers”, they were at least reminded that this is a very valid model which may eventually prevail. But the skepticism expressed about the digital illustrated book may be totally misplaced. It all depends what experience you want. We have plenty of examples of text files co-located with audio, video and image where the user is invited to chart his own course through the material. But why are we so hung up with trying to replicate the the narrative experience of the illustrated book online?

About an hour later on the Web I did encounter a digital publisher. One who publishes for consumers yet does not use paper at all. Its Vice President was writing a Christmas message to the staff on November 28th. He reported that 13 of the Top 100 Kindle bestsellers were published by their organization, and he recognized 11 authors whose new titles on his list had sold 100,000 copies in the past few months. He pointed to the success of the company language translation scheme, with 12 titles translated by this operation getting into the German Kindle Top 100, and the German into English programme beginning in the New Year with a prize winning German novel. He spoke of serialization and reminded his internal readers that the programme they launched in September was now serializing seven never-before published Kurt Vonnegut stories over the next seven weeks. And he spoke of global outreach and of his plans to open a European operation in Luxembourg early next year.

The writer was of course Jeff Belle of Amazon Publishing. And his words make one realize how late in the day all this foothills talk is. He does, however quote Jeff Bezos as saying “Its still Day One”. Yes, but late in the day on day One!

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