Beyond the Battle between Print and Digital books

3 min read

It feels like the battle between print and digital for the future of publishing is over.

And the winner is … ?

This doesn't mean that there won't be fighting—nature seems to love its Manichean dichotomies, and people easily fall into many tropes:

In the meanwhile, most people read some print, consume and socialize a lot on their phones, and binge watch on their laptops, increasingly treating their televisions as wall-mounted computer screens.

I used to go to the annual Digital Book World conference in New York every January, before attending more museum-focused confabs meant conference-travel-budget sacrifices had to be made. DBW usually felt like a trade show, big on handshakes and deals and smaller on ideas—which, depending on how much actionable takeaway your bosses want to see in your expense report, isn't necessarily a bad thing

the tone of the conferences had both an air both of resignation and of bafflement to it.

Times have changed. For one, DBW is now in March, which in this climate-change era means nicer weather. More significant is the presence of BIG IDEAS at the confab, with the understanding that there are now a million ways to publish, at least a few hundred ways to reach audiences, and, well, four companies dominating the digital content landscape.

While there's still a roadmap to getting published—write good story that people want to read, let people know about it, engage your audience, keep the rights to its various forms, then write the next great story—Porter Anderson, now the editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives and a writer who's been covering the expanding universe of print-meets-digital for some time, said it best in his conference summary, which should be required reading on the general state of all things content: the tone of the conferences had both an air both of resignation and of bafflement to it.

What he means, and which is increasingly obvious to anyone who's been in publishing for, say, 20 years (long enough to have seen digital arrive), is that there are no answers to publishing success, only hard work, luck, and the willingness to bash oneself in the head with a brick.

discoverability makes my brain hurt!

It doesn't make all these panels meaningless. Conferences are about networking, generating cross-disciplinary ideas, and getting away from your desk for a bit. Pretend as we might like, we all know how books work; the problem is grabbing some of that phone screen time back from our readers, and the way to do that is to understand the platforms and the behaviors that readers use on them. After all, after the past couple of years, Barnes and Noble sure as hell knows it.

*Screen, screens, everywhere.*

The conference's Al Capone's Vault moment may have been the on-stage appearance of "Data Guy," who's been running Amazon ebook sales numbers to try to suss out just how much money indie authors are making in digital sales. (No, there's not an app for that.) The answer is … well, think for a minute, you'll probably come up with it yourself.

If you said, some are making a lot of money, most not very much, just like in print publishing, you're right.

And you should go to conferences anyway.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.