How did we get here?
Print is dead? Really? That’s a dangerous statement for a designer to say, someone who gets compensated for transferring ideas into a physical form.
For over 1,900 years the human race has scratched their big ideas onto paper. Over that time we have gotten really good at publishing thoughts for the masses. Being able to print our voice has inspired revolution, inspired love. While I romanticize about the tear soaked, coffee stained fibers accepting my secrets, I also realize that it will never be the vehicle it once was. It makes the old guy in me sad.
For me to channel the great Dr. Egon Spengler is comparable to British Petroleum encouraging the world to use alternative sources of energy. Self preservation must not be high on my priority list, right? But the signs are too big to avoid and the future is too intriguing to ignore.
When I was a teen, I believed that anyone between the ages 30-70 were middle-aged. As 30th birthdays rapidly approach, people begin to care about what fertilizer they put on their lawns. Wearing comfortable shoes is now important. For some reason suspenders become an acceptable accessory option. Sandals with black socks are not a choice for a middle-aged man, but a requirement. Insurance policies are always welcome conversation at these mellow parties as well as complaining that no one understands how irreplaceable they are at their place of work.
Here I now sit, firmly established within the ages of 30-70. Staring at my auto insurance payment which my smart phone prompted its due date. As I ready myself to pay online, I wonder why my rates went up even though I haven’t gotten a ticket in 10 years. “Maybe I should shop around,” I think to myself. I’ll Google ittomorrow.
“Google it”. Another genericized trademark like Kleenex or Xerox has been created. These days, it seems that my life revolves more and more around search engines. I am a person that not long ago had a set of encyclopedias in my house.
Correspondence was written either by hand or on things called typewriters. Thin sheets of paper were used, called stationary. Having a remote control meant coaxing your younger brother to get up off the couch and change the channel with a pair of pliers because the knob was stripped. Can’t wait to see what’s on the other 2 channels.
Hmm. How did I get here.
I think back on all of the things that I once loved and now have thrown away. For example: the stack of 45 records I had, to the 8-track tape player in my friends Duster. Enter in the era of the mixed tape. Nothing like professing love in a 60 minute cassette tape played on a Sony Walkman. Unfortunately, overplayed tapes wore out and we moved over to Compact Discs. Scratches happen, CDs skip. Now here we are, watching the rapid decline of the CD while digital music has become the newest vehicle. I can’t help wonder what is next!
I am beginning to believe that middle-aged means being able to remember using technology that is now utterly obsolete while embracing present technology, and even anticipating the next great breakthrough. There has to be some kind of perspective and knowledge gained through that, right? Let’s go with it.
So, why my preoccupation with middle-agedness? Meet the hero of my story, Electronic Publishing. If Electronic Publishing were human, it would be worried about cholesterol, eat Fiber One cereal and remember their first U2 concert (back when Bono had a mullet). That’s right, the hero of our story has been around for over 40 years.
1969 The birth of the Internet happened way back in the summer of ‘69. While Vietnam was in full swing, 500,000 people gathered at Max Yasgurs farm for three days of music and peace called Woodstock. That same summer, Unites States’ Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and expanded outer space for a new generation. Meanwhile, ARPA or the Advanced Research Projects Agency quietly expands innerspace by going online, connecting four major U.S. universities. It was designed for research, education, and government organizations. Also, it provided a communications network linking the country in case those dirty Commies destroyed our phone systems.
1971 The first electronic book was created by Michael Hart in July of 1971. Michael keyed in The United States Declaration of Independence to the mainframe he was using. In upper case, because there was no lower case yet. It was downloaded by six users2. Project Gutenberg was born.
Michael Hart created Project Gutenberg with the goal of making available for free, and electronically, literary works belonging to the public domain. Project Gutenberg was the first information provider on the internet and is still running strong, offering over 36,000 free ebooks to download to your PC, Kindle, Android, iOS or other portable devices. Go to http://www.gutenberg.org/ for more details.
1972 Email Since the time of platform shoes and bell bottom jeans, electronic publishing has rode shotgun to the development of the Internet. The next electronic publishing jump forward was the first modern email program. Created in 1975, it was complete with “Reply” and “Forward”. Later came the infamous “Reply All” and the invention of those disastrous accidental e-mails broadcasting catty messages about your boss to your boss.
1978 SPAM The first unsolicited commercial email message better known as SPAM. Thus, entering in the era where African princes are in dire need of our support and penises are easily enlarged for 3 easy payments of $29.99.
1979 Social Networking Two graduate students created Usenet, an internet-based discussion system. This was the predecessor to social networking communities such as My Space, Facebook, and Twitter. More importantly, the two graduate students established the use of chat rooms where questions, such as” What are you wearing?” became imperative data.
1979-1989 For the next 10 years, the process in which information is shared shifts and improves. During this time the “above the surface” growth can be seen on what floppy disk buyers put in their homes and on their desks. In the early 80s, while Tron is blowing our geeky little minds, the IBM Personal Computer (PC) is launched. This nifty ground breaker came with a clever operating system called MS-DOS. MS-DOS was licensed to IBM by…wait for it…Bill Gates and Microsoft. In addition, Apple and Steve Jobs threw their hat in the ring during the 1984 Super Bowl. A commercial for the user-friendly Macintosh is chock full of foreshadowing, denounced PC “big brother” while declaring that you’re not cool if you don’t own an Apple.
1983 Standardization Just as important, APRANET (see 1969) standardizes TCP/IP networks. This creation of one clear network protocol sets off the coming out party of the Ethernet. Networks are getting faster and increasing exponentially. The question “How can we get this to work?” becomes, “How can we get this to everyone?”
This is happening today with Electronic Publishing.
In 2011, the International Digital Publishing Forum standardized the language EPUB as the global standard interchange and delivery format for eBooks and other digital publications. What does this mean? Well, if we refer back to 1983 it means the question “How can we get this to work?”, has been answered. The next question is, “How can we get this to everyone?” We as designers and writers are the actors in this movie.
1989 The World Wide Web The World Wide Web was developed in 1989 by English computer scientist Timothy Berners-Lee. He wanted to share information and links to any information anywhere. The protocol was based on hypertext- a system of embedding links in text. Because of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), we are able to connect information across the world, across platforms and into our eReaders today.
1993 Web Browsers If we were to take a Jack Kerouac kind of drive across the United States on the World Wide Web before 1993, we would notice long stretches of wasteland, void of life between major information metropolis’. Web browsers became the on-ramps to the superhighway. With every browser, little towns developed, complete with billboards, shopping, and tourist attractions.
Because of the early browsers Mosaic (Netscape) and Internet Explorer, more & more people who once were stuck in the content wasteland, can create their own on-ramp and explore an ever-expanding world.
The internet has now hit the masses. Big business is now itching to make money with this shiny new toy.
1993-2001 Dot.com During the nineties, Wall Street and Madison Avenue were trying to figure out how to generate profit out of something that wasn’t yet tangible. It was like selling air. But Madison Avenue knows, you can sell air (think radio, and as Wallstreet knows, you can make money on prospecting.
Enter the Great Dot.com Boom of 1999-2001. Just like the Gold Rush of 1845, it wasn’t the goldminers who made all the money. It was the land owners who bought, sold and leased parcels well above real value. The merchants who supplied the mining equipment, and the prostitutes who provided personal services for gold nuggets just extracted from the California earth.
In 2001 many dot-com startups went out of business after burning through their venture capital and failing to become profitable. Many others did survive and thrive in the early 21st century. Merchandisers stumbled out of the gate, but have since become highly profitable. Companies like Amazon.com began in 1994, but did not post a profit until 2001. But they survived, and we learned from their experiences.
Conventional retailers use the internet as an additional source of income instead of the replacement of traditional vehicles. Online flea markets such as Craigslist and eBay have taken on a life of their own. Let’s not forget the most profitable industry online, pornography. In 2006, the pornography industry had larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined.3 Some businesses were originated because of the Dot.com Boom. Instead of buying and leasing land like in 1845, we buy and lease domain names and web hosting.
1998 Kim Blagg obtained the first ISBN issued to an E-book and began marketing multimedia-enhanced ebooks on CDs through retailers. Shortly thereafter through her company “Books OnScreen” she introduced the ebooks at the Book Expo America in Chicago, IL . The audience was impressed but not convinced ebooks had a future.
2002-present Web 2.0 In the aftermath of the dot-com bubble, phone companies invested in cell infrastructure keeping charges low, helping to make high-speed internet connectivity more affordable. During this time, search engines such as Google and social networking (Facebook, Twitter) have dominated the last decade and found success creating a more enjoyable World Wide Web.
Information exchange has been taken to another level. Blogging and RSS feeds benefit publishers by letting them syndicate content automatically. Websites now have articles with embedded video, user-submitted comments below the article, and RSS boxes to the side, listing some of the latest articles from other sites. Websites like YouTube add another dimension to the user-created experience.
I mentioned earlier that since the beginning of the internet concept, electronic publishing has ridden shotgun, and piggybacked on it’s advances. While blogging and networking is growing form a kind of electronic publishing, the traditional publishing industry has taken a more portable approach.
U.S. Libraries began providing free e-books to the public as far back as 1998 through their web sites and associated services.4 The electronic books were primarily technical or professional in nature and could not be downloaded. By 2003, libraries began offering free downloadable popular fiction and non-fiction e-books to the public, launching an e-book lending program that has been successful for public libraries.5
While the academic world is expanding their e-book selection, traditional publishing companies Random House and HarperCollins started selling digital versions of their titles. Digital versions consisted of pdf formatted files of the printed version.
By 2010, over 67% of U.S. libraries were offering e-books, however, some publishers and authors had yet to warm up to electronic publishing. Their reasons being the lack of demand, piracy and inconsistencies with proprietary reader devices.
They were right. They are also wrong.
In the past and still currently, numerous e-book formats, have confused the market. Multiple readers followed multiple formats, most of them specializing in only one format. This fragmented the e-book market even more. Due to exclusiveness and limited readerships of e-books, the e-books have lacked the standards needed for packaging and sales. Moving forward, the standardization of EPUB as the digital language of choice, will force proprietary readers to fall in-line or fall-out. As Henry Ford has taught us, standardization improves quality, quantity and sales.
While e-book sales is still a fraction of book sales, online bookseller Amazon.com reported sales of e-books for its Kindle readers outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever during the Summer of 2010. By January 2011, e-book sales at Amazon had surpassed its paperback sales. In the overall U.S. market, paperback book sales are still much larger than either hardcover or e-book; The American Publishing Association estimated e-books represented 8.5% of sales as of mid-2010, up from 3% a year before. It has been predicted that the sales on eBooks will reach $9.7 billion by 2016. This is a tripling of current figures for 2011, where eBook sales are expected to top $3.2 billion.
Evolution has created a revolution
There has been a process of gradual, peaceful, progressive change happening in the electronic world since the introduction of the internet and electronic publishing. This slow maturation has created a robust and profitable digital world. It has also brought the publishing industry to the precipice of revolution.
Whether you are an innovator or a late-comer, you cannot deny the that e-books are trending up while printed materials are on the downswing. This has caused the publishing industry, large and small to re-evaluate business strategies. Discussions occur daily on e-book formats, book conversion processes, platforms and hardware, workflow, pricing, digital rights, outsourcing, technological enhancements. All of which are happening at the same time across the globe.
Publishers are trying to get a handle on this new medium while still trying to predict content trends, purchase habits and develop marketing channels.
It’s a bit like running and putting on clothes simultaneously. In the end, all the garments may be on your body, but don’t be surprised if you gave yourself a wedgie.
Uncomfortable as that may be, I hope you as excited as I am, because a publishing revolution is about to break wide open. In fact, while we were dipping our toes in the ocean to test the temperature, we have failed to see that we are already waist deep.
It’s ok. The water feels fine.