The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content

The current controversy about the state of the eBook industry has been unproductive for a number of reasons. Much of the information out there on the blogs is just wrong—which should not come as a surprise because the book business is complicated. What’s surprising is the sour tone of so many of the comments on such blogs. A common theme among them being that “somebody is making a lot of money out of books but I’m not.”

In addition, almost no one outside the industry seems to have any grip at all on the editorial process. How many different editors does it take to make a good book? This sounds like a bad joke about replacing light bulbs, but the answer, if you are talking about a professionally produced book, is four to seven: an acquisition editor, a substantive editor, a line editor, a copy editor, a production editor, a proofreader, an indexer, and often a lawyer to check the text for libel. Sometimes a single person can perform a number of these editorial functions, but each one requires a distinctive mindset.

There is also an insidious source of confusion and misinformation arising from people who hope to benefit financially from the intentional muddling of essential distinctions.

Let’s take a hard look at the phrase “digital content.” Do eBooks have digital content? Many people—people who are in the business of selling digital everything and who proclaim from the rooftops that everything non-digital is a dead duck—would like you to think so. It makes it easier for them to make money. But the idea that eBooks have digital content is very misleading. The content of eBooks is language, language which has been digitized. Likewise the content of the books Gutenberg printed was language set in type. These are just two different ways to make language hold still so you can read it.

The confusion about the supposed digital content of eBooks is important because it fits perfectly into the favorite transformation narrative of the “digital changes everything” cheering section: if eBook content really is digital, publishers could and should wake up from their long but highly profitable analog slumber, and allow the digital revolution to sweep away their antiquated methods of making books. When this happens, the books will be just as good but much cheaper.

But what authors and editors must do now to produce good content is exactly the same thing they have always done. Every book and every edit is a one-off, custom proposition. What authors and editors produce is no more digital than the folk-art wooden rooster a farmer might carve to decorate his weather vane. Of course word processing software has made working with texts more convenient, but these gains in efficiency were achieved a decade ago. Yes, there are some new programs that make the conversion of texts to eBooks quicker and easier, but this conversion cost has always been trivial.

If the content of eBooks was actually in some deep sense digital, the text could be written by a writing program and edited by an editing program. But they can’t be. I knew a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop back in the sixties who was trying to generate short stories out of a computer program. They were just as awful as you would imagine. I sometimes try to write a poem. The best way to know if you have come up with a good line is to check Microsoft’s opinion. Lines that could work as poetry will certainly flunk the simple-minded Grammar Checker that comes with Word.

So the cost of the content of eBooks cannot be reduced much because the making of it is deeply artisanal in nature. Since content is in no deep sense digital, producing it at a high level cannot be automated, which is where important cost savings could have been achieved if any were possible.

Curt Matthews
CEO, IPG and Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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2 thoughts on “The Oxymoronic Notion of Digital Content

  1. I could take the publishers’ positions a lot more seriously if you weren’t trying to argue that ebooks aren’t digital content. They are in a digital format, which has distinct advantages–mainly, that it can be infinitely replicated at no additional cost. If I had a product that could be magically replicated to as many units as the public was willing to buy, I’d find that magic price point where I could sell the most copies for the most profit. Judging by what I hear on a daily basis about ebook prices from actual customers, $10 might not be it.

    • Is there really no difference, as your comment implies, between digital content and digitized content? I will admit that this distinction may seem esoteric, but it points to a major confusion in the eBook world. There is such a thing as digital content: it is content that is combed out of a database by an algorithm; and usually the people who created the database content get paid nothing by the people who aggregate this content. The Holy Grail for many tech firms is to sell advertising around content that cost them nothing to collect.

      I will leave the issue of whether this activity is fair to others. My point is that it takes an author a year or a year and a half to create the content for a book, and that very little of this effort can be automated. The second part of my Digital Content blog will talk about the digital distribution of eBooks. Here the problem really does have a digital solution which should lead to important cost saving for consumers.

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