Andy Stubbings writes: I went to a talk on the future of publishing recently by Julius Wiedemann, the Design Editor at the art book publisher Taschen, at the Design Museum round the corner from our London office. Wiedemann made a cute analogy between the classic “DABDA” framework on the stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) and the way the publishing industry is adapting (or not) to digital technologies and planning for its future.

It wasn’t exactly clear from the talk where publishing is on the DABDA journey (inevitably, the projector was malfunctioning), but it appears we have gone past Denial (“Of course the traditional newspaper model is viable!”) through Anger (“How dare people find information for free that they used to have to pay for!”), and is now somewhere into Bargaining (“OK, you can read all our magazines as much as you want online, but only by subscribing to our ‘digital newstand’ via your iPad”). One thought that occurred to me during Wiedemann’s argument was that skeuomorphic design – the idea that objects should retain part of their previous typeform or design cues to put users at ease (e.g. the page-flip mechanism of online magazines) – could be a product of submerged anxiety in an industry still in a ‘Bargaining’ phase, and therefore can’t let go of doing things in old ways.

According to Wiedemann, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better for the industry in the shift to digital. Chief among the reasons for this is fragmentation – of publishers and publishing formats, of retailers and distribution models, of device operating systems and interface standards.

This is something we discuss in our Technology 2020 report (which recently won a Merit in the WPP’s thought leadreship Atticus awards, and has also been  excellently summarised by our sister company Digit). Digital technology is following the same foreseeable 50-70 year cycle that other big technology developments have gone through since the Industrial Revolution, in which there is first a period of 20-35 years of technological innovation without radical application – “old things in new ways”, followed by a second period of major social and economic change as the technology is applied to do “new things in new ways” (new applications, new behaviours, new organizations etc). There is necessarily a period of fragmentation, messiness and even “bargaining” to borrow from the DABDA model, as an industry tries to transition from the first phase to the second, with the disruption this entails.

This is particularly the case for publishing, as most of the expectations around business models, pricing and end consumer usage are still built on the old mental model of print – and for the moment digital is expected to fit into that, or else. Wiedemann gave one example of how he and a colleague were looking to publish a small release of a digital magazine with a total budget of around £15,000, but the digital rights to one font alone were going to cost them £6,000 – a price that is representative of the seller’s insecurity about how to price their product. Another example: image owners will sometimes charge three or four times as much for digital compared to print publishing rights, because they believe that readers will reproduce and re-use these elsewhere. Of course they could (although they could also scan in or photograph a print image with almost as much ease if they wanted to), but is setting an artificially high price on images in the short term, which stifles their circulation, going to fix this problem in the long term?

It will take years to resolve these issues. It’s not just a question of publishing markets taking time to reach an equilibrium where buyers and sellers benefit. It’s not just about infrastructure, and the time that will take for new standards, new distribution mechanisms and new systems to be put in place. With the introduction of every great technology, whether it is digital technology supplanting print, cars replacing the horse, or the introduction of mass production, the last thing to change is usually people’s values and assumptions about how we do things, which are a legacy from the technologies that preceded it. With technological disruption, as with grief, the hardest part is letting go.

The image at the top of this post is from a Poetry Foundation post on the future of book design, and is used with thanks.

One thought on “Stages of digital grief

  1. Unlike any other previous tranche of disruptive technology, digital enables the rise of the dr@m@teur – the digitally revved up amateur. This democratisation of content creation, production, distribution and consumption is what’s going to create a disconnect with previous industrialisation/economic business models. In other words don’t sit around waiting for aggregation. WIth the rise of epiphyte capitalism (via digital platforms) we’re seeing the rise of small scale creative entrepreneurs/personal brands with unprecedented scope. This combined with environmental changes, political volatility, and generational transitions, means the ‘new normal’ is going to be something that traditional economics/ capitalism will struggle to come to grips with. Start thinking how to survive in an economy built more around P2P, sharing, exchange rather than own/buy/control one.

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