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Roger Clarke's 'Electronic Publishing'

A Phased Approach to Exploiting the Publishing Revolution">Roger Clarke

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© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1996


Publishing is confronting a revolution. Conventional approaches are slow and unwieldy. During the next few years, they will be very substantially replaced by new ways of working.

The key technological developments that are enabling, stimulating and forcing the revolution are:

These tools are releasing what appears to have been a latent eagerness by people to create and to publish.

It is all too easy to conceive of a 'brave new world' in which electronic publishing will be the norm. What is considerably more difficult is to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of existing approaches to publishing; to conceive of a practical, efficient and effective means of bulding on the strengths, overcoming the weaknesses, and migrating from the moribund present to the exciting future; to align the undertaking with corporate strategy; and to thereby profit from it.

This document's purpose is to present a phased approach to electronic publishing, in a manner that facilitates decision-making and investment by those organisations whose primary business function is publishing, but also by organisations for which publishing is a secondary activity, and by authors, and by users of publications.

The document commences with a review of conventional publishing. It then identifies the ways in which electronic tools can be applied to improve existing approaches. Building on the steps taken in that first Phase, it then identifies a succession of additional Phases whereby organisations can migrate towards a mature electronic publishing model.

Phase 0 - Conventional Publishing

Since the Gutenberg / Caxton revolution in the fifteenth century, a very substantial publishing industry has developed, matured ... and ossified.

Up 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 re-captured by the publisher into off-set format.

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:

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, distinctive difference, or product differentiation.

Phase 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 have attempted these manoeuvres in relation to the Internet, they have been ineffective.

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:

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.

Phase 2 - Primitive Electronic Publishing

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

Critical factors in the existing industry's non-responsiveness to market demands are the long print-runs, and the delays that these entail. New kinds of printing technology are enabling printing on-demand, by reducing the cost-advantage of volume-printing. This enables publishers to print short runs to meet demand, and to respond quickly to unexpected demand.

Centralised on-demand printing suffers from a deficiency in comparison to conventional marketing, in that it denies the element of spontaneity that is inherent in book-shop browsing. This can be overcome, however, if the new 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, updated to reflect the changes that have occurred.

A further opportunity is to perform some degree of customisation of the product to reflect the needs of the customer. One example of this is the ear-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 chapters in the sequence requested by the lecturer, omitting chapters that are not wanted, and choosing from among options (e.g. chapter-extensions that relate to particular technologies, products, cases or countries that the lecturer considers most relevant).

With the increasingly wide availability and popularity of moderate-quality video-display screens, the opportunity exists to migrate beyond hard-copy, paper-based dissemination to soft-copy distribution via private and public networks. This involves many new challenges, such as the popularity of the book-as-artefact (something you can curl up with in a chair, read on a plane, etc.), the limited access many people have to appropriate display technology, the diversity of installed equipment and software, and the need to ensure revenue-collection. Nonetheless, by the mid-1990s, this approach was already valuable for relatively volatile documents, for niche markets, and as an additional option to hard-copy.

As soon as soft-copy is disseminated to users, further opportunities present themselves. One is remote on-demand printing. Its benefits include the apparent immediacy of the service to the customer, and the transfer of hard-copy production costs to the buyer. It involves some significant difficulties as well, including the diversity of installed equipment and software (particularly printers), the lack of control over the quality of the hard-copy version (e.g. the loss of colour registration and formatting), the difficulty of preventing replication and sale of 'bootleg' copies, and the difficulty of preventing, detecting, and protecting against the impact of, modified copies. Even so, many niche markets exist for this approach.

Another opportunity created by soft-copy publication (although one which is incompatible with on-demand printing) is incorporation of non-print media within compound documents, specifically sound, video / moving image, and animation. Some applications are primarily gimmicky in nature, while others deliver substantive value-add to the publication.

Phase 3 - Integrated Electronic Publishing

The revolution inherent in Primitive Electronic Publishing can be carried much further, by seeking far more substantial integration among the elements.

The notion of authorship has long been sustained as a singular, with a reviewer and an editor acting as separate roles further along the conventional production chain. Technologies already exist, and improved tools are emerging, that enable effective collaborative authorship. This will improve cycle-times on the one hand, and quality on the other.

The reduced emphasis on 'hard' deadlines will result in more iterations, increased perfectionism beyond the point of diminishing returns, and resulting delays and costs. On the other hand, carefully managed, this same feature will enable the emergence of 'living documents' (like this one), which are subject to continual improvement, and hence attract user loyalty.

Another aspect of integration is the provision of hyper-linkage among publications. 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.

Many publications depend at least in part on underlying structured data, stored in database management systems, spreadsheet models and the like. Integrated electronic publishing incorporates the ability to construct elements of documents such as tables and presentation graphics, but even portions of text, on the basis of real-time look-up of, or enquiry into, the current database state. Although this will be of greatest importance in contexts that involve volatile and valuable data, such as market prices, the concept is of relevance in a wide variety of contexts.

A further advantage of soft-copy publishing is the ability to 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 thesauri, textual analysis and user preferences. Searches can be conducted within individual documents, within specified collections or libraries, or across the world's electronic library.

Phase 4 - Interactive, Adaptive Electronic Publishing

The new electronic context creates the possibility of interactivity between the publication and the user. This may be achieved through the embedment of software within the document, e.g. using CD-I or in the form of applets downloaded over a 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.

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 media, and in a technical format, that meet the user's needs, and in a presentation format that matches the 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 needs. 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.

A further opportunity exists to enable a user to conduct experimentation with alternative formats and contents. Some applications are variants of what-if scenario-experimentation familiar from financial management using spreadsheet modellers and their predecessors. Authors and editors will discover many additional ways to apply the principle, to assist in problem-analysis, and in their efforts to produce new publications building on old ones.


It is entirely feasible to describe today a future, mature form of electronic publishing. Exciting though such an exercise may be, it offers limited business-value. The series of Phases described in this document provides a basis for planning transition from the conventional present to the desirable future.

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The content and infrastructure for these community service pages are provided by Roger Clarke through his consultancy company, Xamax.

From the site's beginnings in August 1994 until February 2009, the infrastructure was provided by the Australian National University. During that time, the site accumulated close to 30 million hits. It passed 65 million in early 2021.

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Created: 30 November 1996 - Last Amended: 1 December 1996 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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