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The Future of Publishing - Introduction, What is Publishing?, Publishing and Photography, A More Democratic Publishing Network, Changes in Printing

digital information data paper

Rochester Institute of Technology

New hardware products and software developments have made publishing widely accessible to the masses, but these same possibilities also present their challenges to the future of published materials.


To talk about the future of anything is definitely a challenge unto itself. Things have changed so much in the last 20 years in the publishing industry and how people communicate that it becomes difficult to predict where this industry will be in the next 20 years. We can, however, talk about some very important ideas and lessons that we have learned in the recent past and make attempts at intelligent remarks on some of the roads the publishing industry is heading.

What is Publishing?

Initially, we must look more carefully at the term publishing. This term has seen a significant change. If one were to look at the Wikipedia definition of publishing, we would see:

Publishing is the industry concerned with the production of literature or information—the activity of making information available for public view. Traditionally, the term refers to the distribution of printed works such as books and newspapers. With the advent of digital information systems and the Internet, the scope of publishing has expanded to include Websites, blogs, and other forms of new media .

Notice the expression “production of literature or information” and then consider the rest of the definition. Publishing today could be encompassed by this underlined phrase. Publishing makes information available for public view. Producing information is the key concept here. The format that conveys the information does not matter. The traditional information channels in this concept are referred to as books and newspapers. These channels are now coexisting with a large array of digital information channels. Information can also be conveyed through photographs, videos, music, Web pages, blogs, electronic newsletters, journals, etc. What is even more interesting is to realize that all these formats might have different modes of capture but they all end up in the same digital data stream.

Even when we talk about ink on paper such as books, magazines and newspapers, the original data that generated them is digital. Therefore, the road ahead holds a shift from publishing to the model of digital publishing. Many traditional printing companies that are eyeing the future have transformed their profiles into communication/publishing companies capable of handling the dissemination of information in all possible venues.

Making something available for the “public view” is also an important notion. If you write or photograph for yourself only and never make this information available to others, one would consider this material as never before seen and/or published. It is when you take this information outside of your own group or circle that we start to consider the concept of publishing.

Publishing and Photography

Hopefully this initial introduction can help explain why publishing and the future of publishing is being discussed and is so relevant in a book like this one. Photography is still the “writing with light,” as the name implies. The analog signal is no longer embedded into silver grains but converted to a digital signal. This signal then becomes a part of this larger field of digital information/communication. Therefore, we can consider photographers as publishers of visual information and photography a visual channel, part of the multi-channel publishing universe—magazines, books, Web, screen displays, cell phones, PDAs, prints, blogs, etc.

Photography as a technology is also converging into the electronics industry. The players of the photo world are no longer dominated by Fuji, Ilford, Agfa, and Kodak. Many of the traditional camera manufacturers are out of business. Sony, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Apple, and some of the stronger camera manufacturers like Nikon and Canon are the players in the digital imaging world. Kodak has moved into digital imaging and publishing. The electronics are what bring these companies together. Your phone becomes your camera, your camera becomes your video recorder, your video recorder can be a camera, and your phone/camera can play digital music and access the Internet. These are all devices that work with semi-conductors and digital signals. Certainly we will see more of this convergence in the future.

Therefore, it is easy to understand that photography is deeply tied in as a component of this revolution in publishing from “everybody wants to be published” to “everybody can publish.” If we go back to the Wikipedia description, we will see that traditionally, publishing is related to “the distribution of printed works such as books and newspapers.” Being published used to mean that someone took enough interest in your work to print it; to put ink on paper. In non-digital, traditional printing processes, this also meant large up-front costs in the production cycle in hopes of having a successful return on investment. Only select works would be published.

Being published carried and still carries an aura with it. Just the distinguished accomplished this in the prior era of publishing. The common saying “plant a tree, have a child, write a book” as the benchmark of achievement seems to convey three important ideas of leaving a trace in humanity after you are gone. The tree and the children will grow and replicate, the book will disseminate itself throughout time—all ways of leaving something behind, being immortalized. Being published is still for a select minority.

For the other vast majority, it is no longer necessary to wait to be published, and photographers and artists can self-publish for themselves. Publishing is no longer just ink on paper. The many different venues available today have made this possible. You can start a blog or an online journal. These can also have images in them. They can eventually end up as ink on paper with the ease of digital printing. Books can be designed and printed; images and text can be published on the Web. These are just a few of the ways that information can be made available for public view by groups and individuals.

A More Democratic Publishing Network

Publishing has become more democratic and less aristocratic. It is not in the hands of a few decision makers anymore. Independent presses are growing all over the place, community interest groups are producing their own publications, and individuals are acting as independent publishers. This will continue to grow and expand as more people have access to cheaper technologies. The newer generations will have more hardware and software knowledge as they incorporate the tools and products into their daily lives.

This spread has most certainly diminished the impact and aura of publishing, allowed for more ideas to be out in the public, and given all of us a better chance to be seen and heard. Although, in this new paradigm, no one will be immortalized anymore for “writing a book” or for being published.

Changes in Printing

The possibilities of printing have changed. Photo quality and longevity of inkjet printing are common realities as are high quality and lower costs in color laser printing. These printers are declining in price, increasing in speed and quality, and becoming more and more accessible. The home office of today can easily publish “one of a kind” publications in full color.

Large-scaled digital printing presses have made the concept of print on demand (POD), a reality allowing the printing of only one copy if needed of any publication or small runs of a few dozen copies. It would have been cost prohibitive in the past to make printing plates, get an entire press inked up, and run hundreds of sheets of paper to get consistency in ink density and registration to then print a few dozen copies of a job. Digital printing allows us to go from digital files straight to paper. Distributed printing is possible—printing closer to or at point of use. Variable data printing is another possibility. It consists of printing a project connected to a database of names and information so that in a print run of 1000 postcards, for example, each individual card can be personalized based on the database provided.

Digital Divide

The digital divide is something we must not dismiss when considering the fact that anyone can now publish. The digital divide represents the socioeconomic difference among communities in their access to computers and the Internet. It is also about the required knowledge needed to use the hardware and software, the quality of these devices and connections, and the differences of literacy and technical skills between communities and countries. All of these concepts define who can really publish and this should make us re-think the term “everybody can publish.” When we think of the World Wide Web, as of today, it does not yet encompass the entire world. Many of the countries on the African continent, for example, have less than 5 Internet users per 100 inhabitants as opposed to the richer countries in the world that have over 50 Internet users per 100 inhabitants. We are seeing a small but decreasing gap in this divide, and this trend will continue.

Lessons We have Learned

Data storage problems, legacy software and hardware, finding and losing digital information, and preservation are still real issues in the digital world. Most users have lost at least some degree of digital information. Digital information is easy to generate, but can be easy to lose and hard to find if careful strategies are not in place. We can type away, take hundreds of pictures with a digital camera, download the digital data from the card, and repeat this process over and over again, and generate hours of digital recording of music or video. The problem is keeping this information, organizing it, seeing it, and not losing it. Much like a traditional library, we need ways to catalog and preserve digital information so that it can become an asset for use in publishing venues, and be available for future generations.

The response to this has been the growth of digital asset management (DAM) and metadata (data about data) as ways of keeping track of digital information. This will allow us to find, retrieve, and commercialize these data. It is clear now that individuals and organizations need to invest in this area to have their data survive in the digital world. Data that do not have metadata attached to it or do not belong in a larger DAM structure will not survive. This can resolve the problem of finding the information, but it still needs to be stored somewhere.

We have realized that hard drives are not permanent storage devices. They have a rather short life span. Even though there are many variables that affect the duration, many companies that opt to play it safe will move their data to new devices every four to five years. CDs and DVDs of today are contemporary ways of storing data but may not be able to be read in future devices. Even if they could last 50 to 100 years as readable physical objects, the more immediate threat will be technological obsolescence that will make currents discs obsolete within a few years. Think about large 5 inch floppy disks, magnetic tape drives, zip disks, and the more recent 3.5 inch diskette. Very few systems are available today to retrieve information from these devices. And these have been the main storage devices for the past 20 years.

Software is temporary. Upgrades, newer versions, and new concepts make software obsolescence a reality. Publications built in older versions have to be converted, sometimes through cumbersome and lossy processes, to newer formats. If software used to read data becomes unavailable, a migration or emulation technology is needed to access the data.

Consequently, because of software and hardware limitations, consumers and businesses alike need to have a migration plan to new storage technologies and upgrade plans for the format of the digital data if they want their information to survive over time. As we see publishing residing in the digital world, these lessons learned will help us prepare for the future.

What We are Learning Now

There are several things that are becoming mainstream that will have an important effect on the future of publishing. We are learning about the impact of these ideas and technologies and about how they will change our notions of information exchange in the years to come.

XML—Structured Publishing and the Semantic Web

There are several technologies that are works in progress that will push publishing to new directions. XML (extensible markup language) is presenting a wide array of possible models for cross-media publishing. If structured with purpose during the document design stage, a correctly tagged master document could be created once and subsequently published in any array of different formats, hence the term cross-media, which would include screen displays of all kinds (PDAs, cell phones, etc.), the Internet and, of course, print.

The critical transition necessary to fully realize the next generation cross-media publishing model will be a shift away from document structure tags that strictly articulate the format of content, but also articulate the contextual meaning of that format.

To understand the limits of basic document structure tags, consider the following example. If there is a section of text that has a tag like text

, the text contained will be displayed as bold and the function of the tag is to define the appearance of that text. If we consider moving this text to other platforms, from the Web to print, or the Web to a PDA, or print to the Web, the text will still be displayed as bold, as defined by the tag. This may not always be appropriate for that particular output/device. In this case we would say that the tag is defining the appearance/content of the entity.

In a tagged XML structure, we are able to create and define our own unique structure. We could define that this piece of text is important, thereby creating a markup such as text. We can use style sheets to create conversions that are customized to the medium being published to. For example, in printed text we could set the “important” tags to be defined as bold, in a cell phone they could be defined as flashing reversed text, on the Web as a larger font, etc. In this case, we would say that the tag is defining the meaning of the entity. Its appearance is defined based on the style sheets that set how to display this information based on the meaning/XML tag from one source to another.

This concept of structured information will allow us to think in terms of semantics—the study of meaning. This will be the age of semantic publishing. The structure of documents and the Web today are based on the appearance of objects. Upcoming publishing and the Web will be semantic, based on the meaning of objects.

Extensible Metadata Platform

Created by Adobe and immediately made available as a nonproprietary format like XML, extensible metadata platform (XMP) provides a way of embedding metadata right in binary files. This allows us to give meaning or add intelligence to images, illustrations, and page layout designs. Computers only recognize digital images, for example, as bits of information and not what the image means. It is through metadata and XMP, tied into XML-structured documents, that we will build meaning to the digital information that is made available.

E-Paper, Electronic Publications, and Richer Content Creation

Our digital displays have become lighter, thinner, smaller, and more flexible. We have moved from large cathode ray tubes to lightweight liquid crystal displays. These are available in cell phones, PDAs, computer screens, and other display formats. We are moving toward an electronic version of paper, the e-paper. For millenniums paper has been the format for conveying information. It is not surprising that our future displays will be paper-like, emulating the feel of paper.

In an e-paper world, digital publishing will supersede the possibilities of printed ink on paper. Ink on paper will become costly and used mainly for very special, limited editions. Newer generations will be brought up reading on portable, flexible digital displays. We already have interactive electronic publications (PDFs) that go beyond text and images. They can contain sound, videos, hyperlinks to other digital content, and the universal three-dimensional format (U3D). The list of possibilities will grow. Documents with richer content can convey much more information than conventional ink-printed documents. They become less linear and much more dynamic and Web-like.

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