On & off line publishing – ideas on the infrastructure (1)

January 30th, 2007 Comments Off on On & off line publishing – ideas on the infrastructure (1)

organised by De Balie in Amsterdam on 19-1-07

Why print or not print in times of online media? How does the grey zone in between ‘on’ & ‘off’ publishing look like? How do they change publishing processes? How does the human race react upon the variety of formats and possibilities?

These are the questions that got some interesting replies during the presentations at De Balie. Thanks to the nice service of live-streaming I followed everything smoothly from my flat in Brussels, getting impatient about streamservices that allow virtual reactions form the audience.

I would like to split the presentations into ideas about ‘the infrastructure’ and ideas about the ‘reading/use’. Doing so I follow the presentation line of the evening: after the interventions of Alessandro Ludovico (editor-in-chief Neural & co-founder of the ‘Mag.Net – Electronic Cultural Publishers) and Simon Worthington (co-founder Mute Magazine, co-founder ‘Mag.Net) – based on the love for publishing, the last presenter was Arie Altena (media theorist, writer, lecturer and researcher at Jan van Eyck Academy) who talked from the reader’s point of view.

Alessandro Ludovico started off introducing the idea of ‘stability versus instability’. Even if paper will never have the same status again as it had during the 20th century, there is still the need for stability. Paper is reliable in all contexts. You can take it everywhere without being dependant on electricity or wifi. But as we are evoluating towards people who sit all day by our unstable computer, it is important to think about how we could overcome the limit of the physic paper someday. Ludovico doubts on the fact that the ‘wannabe’ electronic paper will ever work properly. He compares it to the promises on ‘paperless offices’ at the end of the nineties. Paper will not die, he says, especially not when the devices (e.g. http://www.irextechnologies.com) are still uncomfortable (contrast, size of screen etc) and expensive (+/- 600€). The only reason to use e-books is to save space, and thus, to be able to have more.

When I moved into my flat on the fifth floor without a lift, I went three times through my bookshelves to be able to reduce my book collection and avoid to charge my friends/movers with too many heavy book boxes. Books seem to keep growing in here and the idea to move them all again one day annoys me. I do not care so much about the materiality of a book. I love the idea to live with a mobile library device and integrated annotation tools, complemented with just the image of my personalized bookshelve against the wall to be able to keep an overview of the books I care about. Looking forward to that day.

In between pure print and electronic paper are living some interesting species already, characterized by the fact that they’re defined by both print and web.

One of them are websites that publish the full content of the printed edition (e.g. http://www.zinio.com/nu03?tab=popular). Some are paying services, some only ask your physical data in exchange for the download. This last case means that producers of content are more concerned to distribute their content than to preserve it. This makes Ludovico think about the peer-2-peer networks that are blamed in the music production: the more it is spread electronically, the more it is sold on the physical market. This means finding solutions for the phenomenon of ‘digital shoplifting’. Ludovico gave the example of the ‘information thefts’ in Japan in 2003, where teenagers started going into bookstores and newsstands taking pictures of the latest dress or haircut with their mobile phones and sharing it straight away with their friends – without buying the magazines.In Belgium small music stores offering high quality in service and products are closing down because of the presence of the net and of big chain stores offering the same music for free or for extremely low prices. One of them testified in the newspaper: ‘I cannot stand today’s students anymore. They come here, listen to four or five cd’s to go and download them later at home. Those copiers steel my cd boxes and leaflets… When someone is standing with a cd in his hands, his friend would say loudly that he shouldn’t buy it, that he’ll copy it for him or pick it from the internet.’ (DS, Totale uitverkoop in platenzaken, 4-01-2007)

There are also pdf-zines, (often free) magazines you download in pdf-format. Ludovico calls them poetically ‘the never born paper products’. They only have one digital feature: the infinite distribution and sharing of content. Examples: http://subrosa.dailygrail.com of http://www.zinelibrary.net.

Thirdly, there are the POD-services (Print on Demand) that combine the idea of infinite sharing to the need for print. The principle is easy: you prepare a book or magazine digitally, you send it to an online POD-service, they adapt your file and print it in the number of copies you want. All copies are sold for the same price per copy (which is different to the offline printing industry where you have to order a minimum amount of copies and large bulks make cheap prices). Your copy will be produced with phtocopying techniques using toner not ink.
These services are subverting the printing process. You can distribute work as an author without finding a publisher first and without having to invest in the printing. On the other hand you can also choose for personal productions as being the real ‘limited editions’. You choose where and to whom you spread your ideas. Ludovico is for example producing the first (illegal) amazon-noir book (softwareproject that hacked the digital library of Amazon through the ‘search inside the book’-option. They were sued and had to sell their software. Read the story of The Big Book Crime at http://www.amazon-noir.com).

Simon Worthington (Openmute, Mutemagazine) extended his presentation on the same POD-services. Mutemagazine combines print and online content – ‘Proud to be flesh’ – and is an experiment in changes the ways editors work. Open Mute is a platform for Open Source technology experiments for publishers. They create software and set up projects to improve network distribution and to facilitate POD-services for readers and authors.
Most of the POD-books are ordered by universities. It is a fast process, the paperbacks have good bindings. Worthington went to see himself how they produce these POD-books. Images of large photocopiers do contrast highly with the reality of manual processes for those who would like covers or special jackets at their books.
For authors POD causes another side-effect. If you use a POD-service your book will also exist as meta-data. Your book will have a ISBN-number that belongs to Ingram Industries (US). The ISBN system interacts with the marketing strategies of whole sale publishers. Your book will be published in their catalogues. In the case of amazon.com they analize the content which can then be looked into through the ‘search inside’-option. Worthington uses the following witty metaphor: ‘they make concrete poetry out of your book by organizing the content in tagging clouds.’ They also communicate the amount of pages/words per kilo, and even add an ‘american readability for schoolkids’ index. All these services give you +/- 5% on the sales price.
POD inverts also the distributing market, as every ordered book will be published regionally to cut down on transport. In the UK for example, the POD-factury is built next to the offices of Amazon UK.

For more information have a look at http://www.openmute.org/pod/?PAGE=podservices. Other interesting thoughts about POD can be found on blogs run by defenders/producers (e.g. http://publishing.booklocker.com) and critcs/authors (e.g. http://www.sfwa.org/beware/printondemand.html).

Another dimension for POD is to publish straight from the web without passing via the desktop publisher. Pediapress (http://pediapress.com) offers this service for the content published on Wikipedia. You can make a selection of articles and have them published in a book that will be delivered in a couple of days by your postman. The books come with a table of content and indexes. Design of course is standard.
Worthington hopes there will still be place for original and specialized designs in these processes. Openmute experimented with a CMS (Content Management System) in Drupal that allowed to select content and generate your own pdf, or move the content around and generate a new pdf to have a different book. There is still a lot of difficulties to surmount in these methods. Research goes on with the Brussels’ based open source designers of Constant.

A spectator noticed that a possible effect of the POD-applications is to get the instability that caracterize the new media, on print. This questions the notion of a ‘book’ on which Arie Altena concentrated his presentation (‘reading/use’).
Another spectator questioned the importance of bookshops in a POD-world. There already exist POD-jukeboxes in bookstores where you insert money, push a button and get your book. But bookshops will never disappear, Worthington believes. The advice of the salespeople, the overview of books, the character of a meetingplace will keep them alive.

I’ll keep this in mind.

URLs:

http://www.debalie.nl/artikel.jsp?podiumid=media&articleid=92557

http://magnet-ecp.org/
http://www.documenta12.de/english/magazines.html
http://www.openmute.org/
http://www.neural.it/
http://www.springerin.at/
http://www.ubiscribe.net/
http://ariealt.net

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