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The Digital Content Revolution is Real

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Computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, digital cameras, and the Internet are just some of the everyday realities of life in the 21st century. All make digital content readily available, instantly, in a multitude of forms from text and audio files, to graphics, images, animation, and videos that incorporate music and movies.

We are all affected in some way by digital content, particularly traditional operations that rely on equipment and operations that have now been digitized. Publishing is one of the industries that has been hard hit by digitization, especially academic publishing, which is in an extraordinary state of transition as a result of what is known as the digital content revolution.

As a newly released white paper by Gutenberg Technology (GT) states, “Publishers operating in the textbook niche are under siege financially.”

The truth is that the digital content revolution has disrupted the textbook publishing industry, resulting in a trend that sees digital textbooks becoming the new norm. Of course, digital textbooks come with a considerably cheaper price tag than printed textbooks, and so the trend undoubtedly undermines the profitability of traditional academic publishers.

So how can they survive?

On a positive note, publishers are able to add value to digital textbooks in the form of embedded video and audio resources, as well as with interactive exercises and even online tutoring. Together with the lower price tag, these factors make them increasingly attractive to students, even though a parallel trend is for students to access free online content and ditch textbooks altogether.

Faced with the challenge to stay in business, leading academic publishers are trying something different in the form of flat-fee digital textbooks.

GT’s new white paper, Academic Publishing with Flat Fees for Digital Textbooks, examines the impact of the Digital Content Revolution and identifies how higher education is embracing the successful flat fees trend already established for movies and music. Leading the movement is top US higher education publisher Cengage, that has announced the intention to make the company 90 percent digital within a year (by 2019). In a bold move, Cengage has also pledged to make all its digital textbooks available to students on-demand, for a flat fee.

Impact of The Digital Content Revolution                  

US inventor and engineer, Douglas Engelbart, an early pioneer of the Internet and the person who invented the computer mouse, believed that “the digital revolution” was even more significant that the invention of writing or printing. That was in the 1960s, decades before the Internet became a household name and traditional media was turned on its head by digitization.

Generally, the initial impact of the Digital Content Revolution has made all forms of content quick and easy to access, and at a substantially lower cost than traditional media is able to deliver movies, music, and printed textbooks.

The impact on publishing has been exponential, from the introduction of basic digital processes that allowed publishers to do typesetting and scanning of images in-house, to the development of methods that negated the use of film either for photography or printing. It has also resulted in the design and creation of digital-first publishing software that saves time, money, and empowers publishers to produce easily updateable content that is both flexible and interactive. This is particularly valuable for the production of digital textbooks.

Fee Model Challenges for Digital Content

As digital publishing has evolved, so too have the fee models used by publishers. The GT white paper examines several of these models in a timeline that stretches from 1990 to 2017 when an unlimited flat fee subscription, similar to those offered by Netflix for movies and Spotify for music, was announced by Cengage. References include:

  • A section of Digital Rights Management: Technological, Economic, Legal and Political Aspects by contributors Willms Buhse and Amélie Wetzel. Springer- Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York, 2003.
  • Content Licensing - Buying and Selling Digital Resources by Michael Upshall. Chandos Publishing, Oxford UK, 2009.
  • The JISC National eBooks Observatory Project (2007-2009) and electronic textbook business model trial, published in 2011.

Prior to the widespread impacting realities of the Digital Content Revolution, the norm for general trade publishers was to price same-title print and digital publications individually, primarily using costs for the exercise. However, subscription and fixed fee models were already making an appearance in the academic publishing sector.

Models discussed include:

  1. A digital rights management (DRM) concept proposing the use of free (but encrypted) digital content with controlled usage. Called superdistribution, it was propounded by Dr. Ryoichi Mori in a paper published in Japan in 1990 and patented by him the same year.
  2. By 2003, Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) was offering thousands of Oxford University Press (OU) academic titles to institutions for a subscription license fee that covered specific chapters or books. Cambridge Companions Online had introduced a similar, but much smaller, program.
  3. Buhse and Wetzel discussed various challenges and a possible framework for digital content business models. Interestingly, they used mobile music as a case study. Issues covered included encryption, piracy, copyright, trustworthy billing systems, and the need to generate revenue. They favored a fixed-fee model that allowed bundling as a means to increase profits.
  4. Upshall compared fee models including subscriptions and pay-per-view which he identified as being popular with non-academic publishers. He also discussed licensing options and free business models.
  5. JISC identified a definite demand for digital textbooks even though they said a large percentage of students preferred printed books.

Ultimately, many academic publishers have been providing digital textbooks, including Cengage via their iChapters online service launched in 2007. This was rebranded as CengageBrain two years later, offering rental options plus a free pdf of the first chapter of the book ordered.

In 2017, Cengage took a quantum leap forward, launching an unlimited flat fee subscription for textbooks that used a fee model based on that currently used by the highly popular and profitable entertainment company, Netflix.

As GT’s white paper boldly states, “With the increasing demise of printed textbooks, there is no doubt that flat fees for digital textbooks will revolutionize the industry sooner rather than later.”

To find out more about the Digital Content Revolution, download the Gutenberg Technology new white paper now.


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