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My earlier blog posts on copyright, the serials crisis and Open Access may have give the impression that large commercial publishers are the natural antagonists of librarians; that librarians are the heroic, under-resourced champions of access to information that would otherwise be locked and bound behind a labyrinthine network of paywalls, copyright law and restricted permissions. This is, of course, largely untrue: the researcher, the publisher and the librarian are all integral parts of the information communication chain and are therefore in a symbiotic relationship with each other, even if one group’s needs and goals have the potential to cause tension with those of another. It is important to bear in mind that innovations such as Creative Commons licenses and Open Access publishing are not completely revolutionary, as they merely form a legal superstructure on an existing foundation in the case of the former and shift the payment structure within the existing publishing framework on the other. And whilst librarians may face financial problems caused by the high price of subscriptions to academic journals, it must also be remembered that the publishers themselves are facing huge challenges for a variety of reasons. These include technological developments in how books are published and read—most obviously the ascendancy of the e-book—business-model challenges from internet giants such as Google Scholar’s digitisation programme and Amazon’s print-on-demand service, and societal changes in what is being read (witness the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey series, which was originally written as fan-fiction).

Our most recent LAPIS lecture covered the current situation from the publisher’s point-of-view, and included the pertinent observation by Michael Cairns of Publishing Technology that:

Technology in publishing, how it is implemented and how it is used is increasingly the differentiator—not the content!—between the publishers that will succeed and those that will fail.

In other words, publishers must stay on top of the latest technological developments, or they will go out of business: evolve or die. In practical terms, this process has extended from the automation of backroom publishing (already largely completed, from computerised typesetting through to algorithmically-driven distribution), through the digitision of content, to the increasing personalisation of marketing and user-centred material through analytics programmes such as this soon-to-be released service offered to publishers by Jellyfish, described in terms that cover the current data mining zeitgeist, as “Google Analytics for e-books”.

To reinforce the plethora of possibilities being pursued by publishers at present, we also had a guest lecture from Dan Franklin, the Digital Publisher at Penguin Random House UK, the British section of a global conglomerate formed recently by the merger of the two historic publishing houses in 2013. He emphasised that, as the digital publishing industry reaches a stable state of maturity (to the point at which the very term becomes a tautology, as publishers now include it within their overall publishing strategy in all forms of media), it is important for publishers to fully interact with the new and constantly-evolving technology available in order to maximise readership, which both increases information consumption (and therefore, hopefully, knowledge) and the companies’ commercial viability in an era which has been influenced hugely by the expectation of free content engendered by the development and growth of the Internet. He also picked out the music and entertainment industry, which has a long history of resisting change for fear of losing revenue, only to suffer in the longer-term as a result.

Franklin also took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of Penguin Random House’s current digital projects, including YourFry, a digital storytelling project to create a crowdsourced biography based on the memoirs of Stephen Fry; new e-reading websites for Penguin’s Pelican and Little Black Classics imprints; the use of other forms of media such as podcasts and films to attract new readers; technological changes such as the creation of a template for building recipe e-book apps; and the use of social media websites such as My Independent Bookshop to improve the user-centred, personalised experience for consumers. The message is clear, and also applicable to libraries (for example, the website LibraryThing is a clear parallel to My Independent Bookshop): innovate or become irrelevant.

[N.B. The cover image for this post is by Ben Tubby (flickr.com) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.]

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