Bridging the digital divide

EVENT: Is That an App in Your Pocket? (Thursday 22 September; Lobby Books)



Shuttleworth Fellows Steve Vosloo and Arthur Attwell in discussion with Ben Williams.

The e-book revolution is fast changing the literary field and how people buy and read books, so it makes sense for literary festivals to create a space for discussion and awareness of this topic. The event “Is That an App in Your Pocket?” did just that. With directors of publishing houses in the audience and participating in the discussion, it is clear that the e-book trend is a significant issue in the literary and publishing fields. On the discussion panel were Steve Vosloo, Shuttleworth Fellow and creator of Mobile for Literacy; and Arthur Attwell, founder of Paperight, a print-on-demand service, and also a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Have we reached “the digital turn”, that big break in digital publishing? This question was put to the panel by chair Ben Williams, editor of Books LIVE.

According to Attwell, “the turn” happens in different companies at different times; some companies turned years ago, Amazon, for example. And it’s not always an easy transformation, says Vosloo: the literary industry has operated in a particular way for so long that the introduction of e-books has in fact sparked a major disruption in many companies. And, according to Williams, it is projected that over the next few years, e-book sales will form about five percent of the annual income of publishing houses.

However, this event also highlighted some strengths that publishing houses have in the face of the e-book juggernaut. It’s very easy for anyone to self-publish, to simply open an account on a blog forum and “publish” their own work. However, Attwell warns that anyone who thinks that a self-publisher is likely to strike it lucky is seriously underestimating the work of publishers. Publishing houses do not just deal with the content of the book, but also its marketing and its very design. Self-publishers will almost certainly not have all these skills at their disposal.

Vosloo makes a valid point: should everyone who has access to media apps really try to write? Often they have very little of interest to say and what they do say is said badly. The resultant overload of subpar writing may in fact send legitimate authors running back to print publishers, and what they can guarantee will be a quality product.

But, as Attwell points out, there are two significant advantages that publishing houses that produce and sell and e-books have over those that don’t: firstly, without having to worry about packaging, it frees publishers up to find more writers worthy of publishing. Secondly, print media has many wasteful practices that digital media does not; this new technology is forcing them to re-evaluate these.

On the other hand, there are two considerable expenses in converting to e-books: it is not a simple process. For example, where the source code of the book is not available for whatever reason, the book needs to be scanned. In this situation, in order to ensure a good product, the book needs to be re-edited, involving virtually the same amount of work that went into the original publication. Furthermore, when authors’ books are published as e-books, their contracts may need to be renegotiated. Vosloo also forewarned the audience that piracy is already becoming a major stumbling block in the e-book arena.

Another consideration is the sustainability of bookshops. Vosloo cited Henry Jenkins’ theory – postulated in his work Convergence of Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide – that envisages new technology creating a niche market in which there is room for bookshops. But bookshops also need to understand this niche market and how to reach it – and keep it. Attwell underscored the importance of customer service and product quality: bookstores may indeed be able to survive the digital onslaught, but only if these two basics are of the highest standard.