Technology and Business Book Publishing


OK, it had to happen. Sooner or later I had to address some of the issues related to technology and the world of publishing. If it sounds like I have given into this topic grudgingly, you’re right. I haven’t always been the greatest fan of technology. As a child, I preferred rotary phones to the new, fancy, “Pink Princess” push-button in my parents’ bedroom (having a second phone was a big deal in my neighborhood in the Bronx in the 70’s, but how do you show off a pink phone to your friends?).

Today, I have more several “antique” rotary phones in my home—including some vintage ones like my “Dial M for Murder” phone—than any modern day phones. That explains why I was the last one on my block to own a cell phone.  

But today, I am all up-to-date. We have three computers in the home and are pondering a fourth (one is my work computer). I have that cell phone, the latest digital and cordless AT&T phone creation, fax machine, a blackberry, and multiple printers—and cannot imagine doing business without any of them. But I am getting off-topic. Let’s get to the topic of publishing and technology.

My first real head-on experience with the subject of technology in publishing took place a month after I joined the profession. It was 1982, and I was at my first sales conference with a large publishing firm that will go unnamed.  A very high ranking executive of that firm delivered a speech at that meeting which I will never forget. In 1982 microcomputers were all the rage. They were the new, new thing and as a result, this executive made a stunning prediction: he asserted that within five years there will be no books—computers would take their place.  In five years books were bigger than ever but that executive was gone. There is an important lesson here, one that transcends the obvious irony.   

The publishing industry has a long record of jumping the gun when it comes to technology. Let’s go back to 1982. Because microcomputers seemed like an unstoppable force, dozens of publishers came out of the woodwork to bring out new books that would show users how to use microcomputers and apply them in various ways. The sheer numbers of these titles quickly skyrocketed into the hundreds within a year. When it all shook out the microcomputing category was of course a disaster. Even though we were one of dozens of publishers competing in that category, our firm, and its subsidiary imprints, had single-handedly created a glut in the market for microcomputing books. When you take into account the sheer number of other publishers doing the same thing, you can imagine the magnitude of the losses and write-offs that would be booked by various publishers over the next few years. 

It’s as if the publishing community does not want to miss out on any new opportunity, especially in technology. No publisher wants to get caught flat-footed when a genuine new phenomenon comes along. That includes the advent of CD’s and how they were going to transform the book publishing industry. The same was true with e-books when they made it onto the world stage in the early 1990s. New e-book divisons popped up overnight, and it didn’t take all that long before it became clear that we had gone too far.

However, in some areas, like in medical publishing, electronic publishing has indeed transformed an industry. For the last decade or so, doctors have been able to download incredibe amounts of information (such as drug interactions and compatibilities) onto hand held devices. And with new inventions like Amazon’s Kindle‘s e-book device and Sony’s PRS-500 portable reading device,  there is no telling where e-books will go. But publishers geared up earlier than was necessary, which led to big disappointments in the early going.

Now, lest you fear that publishing and technology has had nothing but a rocky relationship, come back next week to get the flip-side of the story.   



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