How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...
The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them).

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er –

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.
TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon
Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

16 thoughts on “How to win with writing’s digital revolution

  1. When I purchase reference books of any kind I always purchase them as print books. I usually purchase fiction in the ebook format. This is especially true these days where I have space limitations.


    1. That’s the definitely advantage of ebooks. Convenience and space. We’re much the same in our household. Here in NZ there is also the issue of price. Local books in particular carry a premium because of short runs by overseas standards. And imported books carry the freight to bring them to the bottom of the South Pacific. Whereas ebooks are the US price and cheaper anyway.


  2. I also think e-books are just helping the industry grow. There is still a place for print books. E-books just means we don’t have to have as many bookshelves, and therefore can buy more books.


  3. Hi Matthew, what an awesome, thought provoking post. I have shared it on my I page – Are you getting my updates from that page? Because for some reason you don’t show on my Likes, even though you have Liked my page. Feel free to share your posts on that page or use #blogquirky on Twitter.


      1. Hi Matthew, if you are on FB you should be able to type in my page address When you are on the page, in a new window, open your blog with the post you want to post, copy and paste the http address in the browser bar for that particular post. Click on post at the top of the page and paste the http address into it. A snippet of the post should spring up, along with a pic usually.


          1. It’s a pain that the posts to pages now show up on the left on a FB page, not in the middle timeline. FB’s idea of making things better – Not!


            1. I stayed well clear of Facebook up until the other week principally because of their cavalier attitude to their users, and to privacy issues. But one can ignore the elephant in the room only for so long… 🙂


            1. DOS command line interface. I think the first one I encountered was actually even earlier, on an old TRS-80 computer with green-screen, which is how I wrote my first published book in 1983.


  4. By far, the best post I have read on digital vs. print for as you say it is a matter of alongside and not either or. Great post!
    P.S. Am a bit behind in my reading but am sharing this on Twitter and FB.


    1. Thank you. The issue has beccome a hands on practical one in New Zealand. As it is, I suspect, elsewhere. The ongoing closure of bookstores and the effective collapse of the traditional marketing model is forcing authors and publishers alike to adapt or die. And the first step to adaptation is understanding.


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