Innovations in the Digital Field by Dirk Rumberg

Attempt at an Overview

Twenty years ago, Google didn’t even exist and the same goes for Wikipedia. In the US, for the very first time Amazon sales went into three-figure millions but the company wasn’t trading yet in Europe. The trio of Amazon, Google and Wikipedia along with smartphones stands for the revolutionary transformation that was, and still is, influencing our media world in recent decades. Judging by the revolutionary changes, which these firms and technologies achieved, 2015 was more a year of quieter evolution and technical innovations in the digital field. At least, retrospectively at the year-end this appears to be the case today. Who knows in what garage, teenage bedroom or shared student house the next big thing was dreamed up so that twenty (or rather five) years from now we’ll say: that totally changed our world. Regarding today’s obvious trends during 2015 three major themes can be identified that also played a role in our blog entries and throughout the annual conference in Spitz:

• How digital developments influence writers (and readers).
• How digital developments impact on libraries.
• The economic effects of digital developments for publishers.

These three themes are ultimately also related to copyright issues, which are generally relevant beyond the general public’s attention span, plus they are regarded as specialist themes.

A book is not a medium to keep “in the background”. It’s worthwhile constantly bearing in mind this seemingly banal platitude when reflecting on the effects of digital trends on the book market, about reader behaviour, writers and libraries. One can listen to music “in the background” (and in over 95 per cent of all cases this is exactly what happens), even if occasionally this activity is perhaps going on while driving the car or washing up, ironing or doing homework – music really is being listened to. Television is also increasingly becoming a “sprinkler system” that goes on “in the background”; and surfing on the net goes on in parallel, talking to friends, chatting, telephoning and cooking. You can’t read a book while doing something else. You can neither drive a car nor surf on the net while reading a book – and when cooking at best it’s one glance at a recipe, not reading the latest crime thriller or most recent non-fiction bestseller. That’s just about still possible while reading “in the background”.

Reading (not only books) nowadays competes with even more alternative activities than 20 years ago. Anybody who travels with his or her eyes open on a city or commuter train sees that. When boarding aircraft most passengers more often than not leave the stack of newspapers untouched – in any case the stack has become smaller. Sitting on a bus or plane people then play on a smartphone or watch a film on a tablet. Reading is (still) a rare pastime here. Those who read are taking a conscious decision about how in the minutes (or in the case of a book it’s more like hours) they want to spend their time (exclusively). The possibility of doing this digitally makes travel bags lighter; but the alternative information, entertainment or diversion is ‘just one click away’. “Mobile first” is a trend that many Internet offers have increasingly embraced no matter it’s about information or entertainment offers. Digital content is increasingly accessed via smartphones and tablets and less and less on desktop computers. In relation to books at first glance, in 2015, one can make out something like a changing trend – apparently,the unstoppab le advance of ebooks appears to have slowed down, and ebook sales are stagnating or in decline. Even in the US more and more print books are being sold. Evidence can be supplied for these trends virtually worldwide. At least, that’s true when one only observes the book market, which has been created and dominated by (traditional) publishers. However, increasingly this is no longer the entire book market. For a long time in plenty of key markets more titles are offered by self-publishers (mostly only as ebooks, or even more via the print-on-demand solution) than are released by publishers.

The sales figures of most are homeopathic. But time and again there are outstandingly successful examples – and the ebook sales charts of Amazon – both in English-speaking as well as on the German market are dominated by such (cheap) self-publisher offers. Traditional publishers certainly take this seriously, as one can see by the fact that nowadays almost none of the major publishing groups survive without their own self-publishing platforms. Meanwhile, there are famous examples (of former) self-publishers who now have publishing contracts (and critically monitor whether this makes them really sell much more than they hoped in order to make this worthwhile due to the evidently lower share of royalties per copy).
For a long time, self-publishing has also no longer been an activity for frustrated would-be writers who have trouble finding a publisher. By now, as the book trade only swings into action for a few titles – and on behalf of publishers – established writers also prefer to take their writers’ dest iny into their own hands. “Marketing and PR is overseen by the writer” is a phrase that, in 2015, agents and writers had to hear from publishers more often than in the past. A former boss of mine, the Bertelsmann post-war new business founder, Reinhard Mohn, used to say (the gist of this): every problem that we’re confronted with today was also faced by somebody else beforehand. We have to take a look at how they solved it, at what we learn from it and how we adapt the answers to our circumstances and what we can do better. This means two things with regard to (digital) developments on the book market, their impact on writers, publishers, the book trade and libraries. On the one hand, it means being open for incentives from other fields (the music and film industry, yet also the gaming industry to mention just three examples). Yet this need not mean treating everything that’s available here as automatically good without any kind of critique. For example, given good arguments you can treat flat-rate models, which are a success in the music sector, as the wrong avenue in the book market.

The other approach to learning (in traditional and unavoidably heavily language-based and therefore often national) book markets is to risk looking more closely than before beyond national garden fences. For instance, to observe what’s happening in Slovenia in the libraries sector or to focus on how in a non-Amazon country like Sweden people deal with the topic of self-publishing. Additionally, and precisely because of the language barriers the usually more challenging look towards Asia may offer plenty of interesting and inspiring ideas. Not only in China, but especially also in Japan or South Korea some surprises can still crop up here.

“The winner takes it all” – see Amazon, Wikipedia and Google – this appears to hold true for major digital trends. In 2015, the book market showed – and will show in 2016 – that it’s still possible to find life in plenty of small niches.

By Dirk Rumberg

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Read more in ELit’s yearbook 2015

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 14 January 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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