12 October 2011 - 8:08 pm

Digital revolution

There has been a lot of attention lately on the digital revolution of textual content, and this was the subject of a talk at this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival. As someone who is getting increasingly involved in e-publishing of various stripes, I was interested in what professionals in the writing industry had to say on the subject.

Overall, I would say that the talk was a big disappointment. There was a lot of doom-and-gloom, nay-saying, and general bleakness with regard to the future of writing as a business as text is increasingly delivered digitally. I walked out feeling incredibly negative about the whole thing, which is not the best message to leave an audience with.

I don’t disagree with most of what was said by the speakers, but I don’t believe that the talk was representative of the ‘digital revolution’* or digital writing markets.

Most of the problem with the talk was the selection of the speakers. They were involved in literary publications, publishing, and journalism. In other words, they were involved in the areas of the business most likely to be hit hard by a move towards digital media. There was no representation of fiction writers or indie publishers, or anyone else who might offer a different perspective on this ‘revolution’*.

So, given that the talk was slanted in a particular direction, what did they have to say about the current climate for writers and publishers?


The increase of the digital market is hurting publishers – namely, the big ones. According to one statistic given in the talk, traditional publishers are finding that their paper book (cutely known as ‘p-book’, I’m told) sales are going down faster than their ebook sales are going up. This is, naturally, a cause for concern.

Interestingly, however, traditional publishers’ profits are still going up. They are not losing money due to the digital markets or their overall sales going down. And yet the atmosphere among the publishers is one of doom and panic.

This suggests a couple of things to me:

  • Traditional publishers do not know how to optimise the digital market yet, and don’t have the appropriate business models in place. Basically, they need to catch up with the times and figure out how to make it work.
  • If their profits are going up while their sale volumes are going down, that means that they’re taking a bigger chunk out of the digital sales than they are out of the paper sales. This means that the cost savings of digital over paper books are not being passed on to the authors, and the authors are probably getting crappy royalties. (That’s what it looks like – I’d love to be wrong about this!)

The move from physical to digital media does mean a big change for traditional publishers, and I don’t know how agile they are being in this transition. From the things I’m hearing, their agility is elephantine!

Newspapers and Journalism

Newspapers are moving into the digital world and away from paper publications. The cost of printing newspapers is increasingly being seen as prohibitive, and it is believed that once the baby-boomers die off, the culture of reading newspapers in paper form will go with them.

It’s hard to know if these two things are true. I suspect that the second point is probably right: generations X and Y don’t have the same newspaper-reading habits that the older generations have. The culture is simply not the same, and moving away from it towards instant digital gratification.

The first point is, I believe, a misnomer. There are plenty of papers around who publish at a loss, compared to the money they receive from sales of the paper, and there are many free papers on offer. This is not a new phenomonon. So how do they survive? Pure sales revenue is not how they make their money; advertising revenue is where their profit lives. Like Facebook, they can afford to give their product away for free because their real customers are the advertisers.

The same is true for online content: there are lots of ways to monetise content without charging the reader for it. Newspapers are moving towards this model. However, in the process, there seems to be other changes happening.

A problem that was mentioned several times through the talk is the perceived cheapness of digital content. This perception is across the board; it’s not just readers, but vendors and publishers as well. No-one wants to pay much for it, because it is seen as quick and easy to deliver, and often of a lower quality than paper-published content. (Note: this is a common perception, not my opinion.)

This means that ‘serious journalism’ is at risk. Where (traditional) newspapers have journalists on staff and are willing to pay them for several weeks or even months’ worth of investigation for a particular piece, the belief is that digital newspapers won’t support this. They will pay for the content by the word (or similar length-based currency), not for the time it took to create it. Serious in-depth journalism will be too expensive to support, which means it will become impossible to make a living this way.

That is, without public help. In the talk, analogies were drawn between the digital revolution and the introduction of radio and television. In order to maintain material of quality and ‘cultural value’ in an increasingly commercial landscape, public (government) support was required. Hence, the BBC was born (or ABC, depending on where you are). It was suggested that the same will need to be done for journalism. (Doesn’t the BBC already have a serious news site? Isn’t this already catered-for to a degree? Questions I wish there had been time to ask!)

Whether there is government-funded papers or not, the business of journalism is changing. Digital content writers are already out there making money from this, and they will tell you how much the market is changing every day. One of the speakers at the talk mentioned that making a living from writing (meaning: journalism or non-fiction articles) will become impossible. Serious journalism will move into the hobbyist’s realm, and they’ll all have to get day jobs to put food on the table.

This sounds familiar. That’s because it’s the lot of 90% of fiction writers – only the very biggest sellers can afford to live off what they make from their books alone. It makes me sad to think that other types of writing might be sliding into the ‘hobby’ zone when I’d like to see the opposite become reality.

Literary Magazines

Literary publications in the digital realm have problems with the same cause as journalists: digital content and publication is seen to be cheap and easy, and so no-one is willing to put the same kind of money into it as they are for a paper publication. For literary magazines, which rely largely on donations and grants, this means that funding can be cut if they move online; apparently, they don’t ‘need’ as much money as they did pre-digital! Some publications have already lost funding in this way.

I guess this means that publishers of literary content are being forced to find other revenue streams to support their work. Is this good for the industry? It’s hard to say. It opens up a few questions:

  • Is there enough money to pay for quality editing?
  • Will literary fiction suffer by being commercialised?
  • Will literary publications be forced to close?

The opinions at the talk seemed to be centred on the need for public (that is, government) support for the arts to ensure that quality, culturally-important material is still produced and published for the world to see.


This is an interesting subject. Libraries are being forced to change by the move towards digital media, and it will be interesting to see exactly what that means in the long run.

Will the perception of ‘digital=cheap’ hurt them too? Will it lead to a reduction in funding for libraries? I hope not, as in this case, it could be particularly counter-intuitive. For libraries to keep stocks of digital media, they will need servers, archives, back-up systems, IT maintenance, and the power to keep it all running.  Or might libraries become more centralised and ‘virtual’? Is that a good or bad thing?


One of the concerns that was raised in the talk was about the quality of digital content. The truth is that it is cheap and easy to publish online, especially if you forego professional aspects of writing. Namely: editing, formatting, and design.

In paper publications, editors and publishers are the gatekeepers of quality (and from many of the books I’ve read, they’re not that good at ensuring error-free text, either: I’ve been tempted to take to more than one book with a red pen and send it back to the publisher). In digital publications, there do not have to be any gatekeepers at all; that is both the appeal and drawback of the digital realm. So how is quality ensured?

Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that. I think that writers should take pride in their work and go to the effort to make sure that it is correct and professional, especially if they are charging money for it. I go to pains to edit and proof the work I offer for free, because quality matters to me. I’m also aware that not everyone cares about it as much as I do.


It’s a lot to think about, and going over it again leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t believe that the ‘digital revolution’ is as drastic or doom-laden as some would like to believe. Things are changing and the publishing industry as a whole needs to move with it. Old roles will change, and new ones will open up.

I believe that writers have a lot of opportunities in front of them right now. It’s not easy to find your way through the morass of information and speculation being thrown around, but I don’t think it’s as dire or as shiny as the various parties would like us to believe. There will always be writing; let’s embrace the new ways of delivering it to people and keep pushing forward.

* I put these words in quotes because, while they’re being bandied about at the moment, they always sound melodramatic to me. I haven’t seen anyone launching at paper with digital pitchforks yet. Perhaps that’s next month!

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