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Roger Clarke's 'Electronic Publishing'

Electronic Publishing: A Specialised Form of Electronic Commerce

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 8 May 1997

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1997

Available under an AEShareNet Free for Education licence

Paper presented at the 10th International Electronic Commerce Conference, Bled, Slovenia, June 1997

This document is at


This paper provides a definition and models of the business process, the business, and the maturation path, of electronic publishing.

It does this not from the perspective of the conventional book-publishing industry, but by drawing on the insights of electronic commerce theory and practice.



The term 'electronic publishing' can be used to refer to the efforts of conventional publishers to adapt their existing forms of hard-copy publishing to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by the information infrastructure. This paper takes the view that this is an unnecessarily constraining perspective, and should be avoided if the real potentials of the technology are to be fulfilled.

A considerable proportion of the existing literature on the topic relates expressly to the publication of academic works (Harnad 1991, 1995, Clarke 1994, Barry 1995b, Treloar 1995, 1996, Peek & Newby 1996, Bailey 1995-97), and particularly e-journals (Odlyzko 1995). Another segment relates to e-zines (electronic magazines - Labowitz 1997). Many sources focus on particular technologies and their application to electronic publishing, particularly the World-Wide Web (Zwass 1996). Another relevant literature is that relating to digital libraries (D-lib 1997, Ketchpel 1997). For general references, see also Varian (1997) and Kahin (1997).

This paper adopts an alternative approach. It considers electronic publishing as a particular form of the general class of electronic commerce systems.

Relevant concepts of electronic commerce are reviewed, in order to establish a working definition of electronic publishing. Three models are then presented, which provide:

Implications of the analysis are drawn, for both practitioners and researchers.

Electronic Commerce

This short, preliminary section provides an outline of key electronic commerce concepts, as a basis for the subsequent analysis.

'Electronic commerce' (EC) is a general term for the conduct of business with the assistance of telecommunications infrastructure, and of tools and services running over that infrastructure.

EC's scope extends across all forms of business process within and between private sector organisations (corporations, partnerships and sole traders), public sector agencies, convivial sector organisations (associations and clubs) and individuals.

EC's most active area of application has to date been in procurement processes, where models of both 'deliberative purchasing' (introduced in Clarke 1993) and 'spontaneous purchasing' are used. See Clarke (1996).

EC also encompasses other business processes such as the design of complex artefacts like buildings, ships and aircraft, and administrative mechanisms such as insurance claims, and registration, licensing and court procedures.

The concept of 'marketspace' (Rayport & Sviokla 1994) has been adopted to distinguish the space, within which EC is conducted, from the conventional, physical marketplaces in which traditional commerce occurs. The marketspace is the virtual context in which buyers and sellers discover one another, and transact business. It is the working environment that arises from the complex of increasingly rich and mature telecommunications-based services and tools, and the underlying information infrastructure.

EC can support most of the processes involved in the purchasing of physical goods and services, with the exception of the actual delivery or performance: as the old hacker's joke goes, there just is no uubp (unix-to-unix-beer-protocol).

Digital goods and services (Negroponte 1995) are those whose purchase can be not only negotiated and settled using the information infrastructure, but which can also delivered through the same channels.

Hence, for digital goods and services, the marketspace provides a context that can support the entire procurement process.

Electronic Publishing - Definition

This paper approaches electronic publishing as a defined sub-set of electronic commerce:

electronic publishing is electronic commerce in digital goods and services that are intended for consumption by the human senses

The following are examples of the kinds of digital goods and services that are encompassed by this definition:

The definition intentionally excludes those kinds of publishing that involve hard-copy documents (especially those that are necessarily in hard-copy form, such as copies signed by the author; hand-written, hand-drawn or hand-painted documents; personally-developed photographs; case-bound books with gold lettering; and artefacts and objets d'art evidencing high labour-content), and physical or analogue media such as phonograph records, audio-tapes and film.

The definition also intentionally excludes particular kinds of digital goods and services that are not intended for the human senses, such as:

More controversially, it is suggested that the following kinds of digital goods and services also be excluded from the definition:

The justification for their exclusion is they are not adequately modelled by a one-way, conception-production-delivery-consumption pattern, but rather involve the active participation of two or more parties.

Later in this paper, it is argued that electronic publishing is likely to develop from a focus on relatively inert content towards adaptive and interactive materials. In time, therefore, interactive content will have to be re-absorbed into the definition. In the interim, however, it is contended that such a broad and ambitious definition would be too revolutionary, and too challenging for individuals and organisations to encompass in one step. A narrow and focused approach is necessary, in order to enable progress in both research and practice.

Electronic Publishing - A Business Process Model

Even though electronic publishing is in its infancy, it is possible and necessary to attempt to model the process. Few models are apparent in the literature to date, but see Barry 1995a, Harnad 1995 and Kling 1996; and Bielawski 1995.

The model presented in this section draws in part on research, and in part on consultancy work, undertaken by the author during the period 1995-97. The model (see Exhibit 1) comprises a linear succession of phases, supported by a global function.

Exhibit 1: Business Process Model for Electronic Publishing

Document management is concerned with the shepherding of individual publications, and of collections of publications, from conception, through production, to delivery and consumption.

The following paragraphs provide an overview of the activities involved in each of the phases.

1. Origination

Origination is concerned with the creation of material, from commissioning and authorship, via quality assurance, copyright clearance and authorisation, to submission into later phases of the process.

2. Pre-Publishing

Pre-Publishing converts material arising from the Origination Phase into the format or formats in which it will be stored. This involves inspection and amendment to ensure conformance with presentation-standards, and may involve hyper-link checking and/or generation.

3. Storage

This Phase involves storage of the documents in a managed repository, which may be a single location, distributed and/or replicated within and/or beyond the boundaries of a single organisation. Version management and archival issues need to be dealt with.

4. Discovery Facilitation

This Phase ensures that a document is capable of being readily discovered by its intended clientele. A variety of means are available, including meta-data cataloguing, structured menus, and full-text concordances and search-engines. Generally, documents need to be to some extent sampleable by users.

5. Discovery and Qualification

Individual clients need to be able to access the materials in a manner sufficiently controlled to ensure generation and protection both of the materials themselves and of any revenue-stream that is intended to arise from them. Particular publishers will support various business models, including sponsored, period-subscription, charge-account and direct-payment approaches.

6. Post-Publishing

Qualifying clients need to gain access to documents in convenient formats through convenient channels. This Phase converts material stored in the repository into the form sought by the user, and delivers it. It may also generate or check hyper-links.

Electronic Publishing - Alternative Business Models

This section considers the manner in which a business can be made out of electronic publishing, i.e. who pays whom and for what?

The economic framework for publishing is provided by intellectual property law, and in particular by copyright. Copyright is a set of rights which the owner gains in relation to a work, but it is not the same set of rights as an owner of real estate or chattels enjoys. Copyright initially vests in the person (human or corporate) that originates a work. It may be sold, and licences may be granted to other persons to, for example, reproduce the work.

A copyright owner may self-publish. Alternatively, a copyright owner may outsource the publishing function to a services provider.

A rich set of alternative ways exist in which a publisher may be able to generate revenues from a publication:

During the pioneering years of electronic publishing on the Internet, the dominant form has been sponsorship. This has been joined by advertising, and by content-provider payments to Internet Services Providers for storage and/or traffic. With the maturation and acceptance of net-based payment mechanisms, content-accessor payments are now becoming more feasible.

It remains to be seen to what extent the catchcry of 'information wants to be free' has permeated Internet user-culture, and to what extent a 'user-pays' model can be achieved.

Electronic Publishing - A Maturation Path Model

This section provides an interpretation of the developmental stages through which electronic publishing appears likely to mature. This is important as a means of appreciating the dynamics of change within the publishing industry during the coming years.

Attempts to provide overviews and interpretations of the maturation path date back to at least Harnad (1991, 1995), and are catalogued by Bailey (1995-97).

The stages proposed in this section are gross depictions, but are designed to group changes into clusters of, initially, evolutionary, and then more revolutionary, aspects of the undertaking.

Stage 0 - Conventional Publishing

Since the Gutenberg / Caxton revolution in the fifteenth century, a substantial publishing industry has developed, matured ... and ossified. Until the late twentieth century, publishing has referred to the delivery of information-content using a standardised hard-copy product. Fairly large numbers of copies of identical products are printed in considerable quantities, in order to take advantage of the economies of scale in printing processes.

Beginning with an author's original in written form, in type-written form, and more recently in 'word-processed' form, publications have been type-set, or (during the last quarter-century) re-captured by the publisher into a format suitable for off-set printing. Particularly during the present century, the principle of specialisation of labour has been applied, resulting in a large number of specialist roles that perform specific functions in a production chain. These roles include commissioning editor, author, reviewer, text editor, type-setter, illustrator, graphic artist, layout editor, indexer, production editor, cover-designer, cover-printer, printer, binder, distributer and retailer.

The manner in which these roles are combined into enterprises varies considerably. Some major publishing houses perform virtually all of them in-house. At the other extreme, some publishers are archetypal virtual organisations, sub-contracting all but some very narrow segment of perceived special competence or distinctive difference that is the foundation of their product differentiation and competitive advantage.

Stage 1 - Electronically Enhanced Conventional Publishing

Existing publishing enterprises, some of them large, rich and powerful, naturally resist new entrants to the industry, and seek to repress substitute products such as the world-wide web. The normal means for powerful entrenched interests to resist encroachment include ignoring the new technology, orchestrating choruses of doubt, pricing existing products aggressively, and subverting the newcomers, e.g. by buying them, or securing monopoly rights to key underlying technologies.

To the extent that existing publishing enterprises are attempting these manoeuvres in relation to the Internet, however, they appear not to be particularly effective.

A more constructive approach is to adopt elements of new technology and technique that are compatible with conventional publishing. This involves the acceptance of a few micro-revolutions as the price for holding off full-scale revolution.

Important examples of electronic tool adoption include:

Examples of these uses can be found on the web-pages of many publishers, available via One of particular interest is the Australian publisher, Lonely Planet, at

Electronically enhanced conventional publishing therefore evidences many of the key features of its predecessor, including standardised hard-copy product as the means of content delivery, and long print-runs of a fixed product. The production chain is little-changed, and the ponderousness of the process little-affected. It may all happen somewhat less slowly, somewhat less expensively, and somewhat more manageably; but the products continue to be un-differentiated, and unresponsive to the needs of micro-markets.

Stage 2 - Primitive Electronic Publishing

While major conventional publishers are 'in denial', new entrants and providers of substitute products have been busy creating new enterprises based on quite different precepts and business models.

New printing technology, particularly Fuji Xerox's Docutech range, is enabling printing on-demand, by reducing the cost-advantage of volume-printing. This enables publishers to print short runs, and to respond quickly to unanticipated demand.

Centralised on-demand printing denies the element of spontaneity inherent in book-shop browsing. This can be overcome if modern printing technology is coupled with 'customer-response systems'. Pioneered by companies like Levi-Strauss and Benetton, these represent a daisy-chain of on-line transaction processing from the retailer back up the value-added chain, enabling overnight production, and prompt replenishment of depleted stocks at the retail level.

This alternative architecture for the industry also creates a new opportunity. Bulk-printed products are frozen, and entirely unadaptive. Where new information becomes available, the author and publisher can take advantage of the new print-run to produce successive revised editions.

A further opportunity is to perform some degree of customisation of the product to reflect the needs of the customer. One example is the marking of a specific copy for a specific purchaser, and the inclusion of the customer's identity within the product. Another is the provision of customised text-books, with selected chapters and appendices in the sequence requested by the teacher.

Beyond hard-copy, paper-based dissemination, the wide availability of display-screens enables network-based, digital distribution, via both private and public networks. Despite the restrictions imposed by contemporary display technologies, this approach has already proven valuable for relatively volatile documents, for niche markets, and as an additional option to hard-copy.

Digital distribution also creates the opportunity for the incorporation of non-print media within compound documents, particularly sound, video / moving image, and animation. Some applications are primarily gimmicky in nature, while others deliver substantive added value to the publication.

A further opportunity is remote on-demand printing. This provides immediacy of service to the customer, and the transfer of hard-copy production costs from seller to buyer. Difficulties need to be surmounted, such as the diversity of installed equipment, the lack of control over the quality of the hard-copy, the difficulty of preventing modification, and the difficulty of preventing replication and sale of 'bootleg' copies; but niche markets are already being successfully addressed.

Stage 3 - Integrated Electronic Publishing

The revolution inherent in Primitive Electronic Publishing can be carried much further, by integrating the elements.

Authorship has long been regarded as a singular concept - the lone originator, with one or more reviewers and editors performing quality assurance on the lone originator's output. In fact, collaborative authorship has long existed. Some network-based tools assist it, and substantial improvements are being made, in order to better support it.

The reduced emphasis on 'hard' deadlines is enabling more iterations and leading to increased perfectionism (admittedly sometimes well beyond the point of diminishing returns), and more delays and costs. On the other hand, carefully managed, the 'just-in-time' production of publications is resulting in the emergence of 'living documents', which are subject to continual improvement, and whose originators consequently attract user loyalty and repeat-visits.

Another aspect of integration is the provision of hyper-linkage among publications (Bush 1945). To some extent, this will tend to be between documents from the same publisher, in order to cross-leverage offerings. But it is also being used to provide support for navigation from high-level meta-documents down to underlying materials, e.g. from an executive summary to a main report and on down to appendices; from legal books and articles down to the underlying statutes and judgements; from advanced technical books down to text-books; and from books down to fundamental reference sources such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries and statistical tables.

Integrated electronic publishing incorporates the ability to construct elements of documents such as tables and presentation graphics, and even portions of text, on the basis of real-time look-up of, or enquiry into, the current database state. This is likely to be of greatest importance in contexts that involve volatile and valuable data, such as market prices; but the concept is of relevance in a wide variety of settings.

A further advantage of soft-copy publishing is the ability to construct indexes, and conduct searches. This can be based on string-based or syntactic techniques, but also on more sophisticated tools which attempt to address semantics using such means as generic, disciplinary and personal thesauri, textual analysis and user preferences.

Stage 4 - Interactive, Adaptive Electronic Publishing

The new electronic context creates the possibility of interactivity between the publication and the user. Simple examples include the ability for the user to re-run an animation, or vary a parameter and see the impact in a table or a presentation graphic. Such effects may be achieved through the embedment of software within the document, e.g. using interactive media, such as CD-I and interactive television, or in the form of applets downloaded over the network.

In addition, it is possible to facilitate interactivity between the user and the author, through email and other messaging tools. Popular authors are likely to shield themselves from continual interruptions, using software agents that perform auto-response and filtering functions of various kinds, and the offering of linkages into the appropriate location within FAQs (files of pre-recorded answers to frequently-asked questions).

A further feature of sophisticated electronic publishing is the ability to construct documents as adaptive artefacts, that meet the needs of specific customers at specific times. The publication can be provided via particular media, and in a particular technical format, that meet the specific user's needs, and in a presentation format that matches that reader's preferred means of communication (e.g. particular tabular and presentation graphics formats, colours, and font, size and print-style characteristics).

More subtly, a document's sequence of presentation, and its length, can be designed to suit the person's preferences. Thesauri and grammar processors can be used to match the person's stylistic preferences such as tense, mode and sentence length. Its contents can be selectively generated; and the triggers based on which publications are offered to the particular user can reflect that person's needs.

Customisation may be performed on the basis of parameters explicitly communicated by the user. Alternatively, it can involve parameters dynamically modified by a software agent, on the basis of the user's behaviour. The software agent may be a general function applied by the user for a variety of purposes, or a specific function provided by the publisher, or indeed a combination of both. The much-discussed 'cookies' feature (Clarke 1997) is a first (forlorn) experiment in building dynamic parameter-maintenance into web technology.

Summary and Implications

The purpose of this paper has been the analysis of electronic publishing from the vantage-point of electronic commerce.

Electronic publishing has been defined and modelled as that form of electronic commerce concerned with the particular kinds of digital goods and services intended for consumption by the human senses. A business process model has been outlined, means whereby revenue can be generated have been examined, and a maturation path model has been described.

The argument presented in this paper has a wide range of implications.

* Implications for Practice

If electronic publishing can be approached as a sub-set of electronic commerce, then the conventional publishing industry is subject to competitive attack not merely from innovative publishers, but from electronic commerce services providers as well.

The much-discussed 'convergence' theme within the information technology industry has been concerned primarily with telecommunications companies (telcos), PTTs (governmental postal and telecommunication authorities), computer suppliers, value-added networking and Internet services providers, and to a lesser extent with content owners such as entertainment corporations.

An implication of the argument in this paper is that the vast publishing empires that deliver books, journals, magazines and newspapers to individuals and companies throughout the world, are also on a rapidly converging path with major players in several other industries that deal in digital goods and services and their delivery to people.

* Implications for Research

Research in electronic commerce has been maturing. There is a community of researchers, one long-established meeting place, the Bled Conference, and an increasing number of additional conference venues. Publishing outlets are eager to receive quality papers, and quality specialist journals are beginning to appear (in particular the International Journal of Electronic Commerce - IJEC). EC research methods has matured to the point at which academics and appropriately-trained graduate students can now confidently match research techniques to particular kinds of research interests.

Electronic publishing represents an additional sub-domain of EC to which the accumulated theory and research methods can be valuably applied. It will be important to appreciate, however, that many additional and powerful players are active in the marketplace, that many established processes and terminologies exist that will be difficult to displace, and that successive waves of technological development will keep the waters turbulent for the next 10-20 years.

An urgent requirement is for case studies that apply and test out the sufficiency and applicability of the terms and models presented in this paper. Once the models have been refined, cross-sectional surveys need to be undertaken of populations of content-originators, publishers, and content-accessors, in order to describe and explain the emergent patterns. Such surveys need to be complemented by deeper, longitudinal studies of particular market segments, in order to enhance understanding of industry dynamics.


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