07 August 2017 Other Voices

Publishing in the digital age

In 1998 Gareth Ward, then editor of the weekly Printing World, was approached to write a book in a series, Work In The Digital Age. This resulted in Publishing In The Digital Age: How digital technology is revolutionising the worlds of books, magazines, newspapers and printing. As a prologue Ward described a scenario of a fictional household and the family members’ jobs and study in 2010.

With the benefit of hindsight, what Ward wrote back in 1998 may not seem obvious, but let us remind ourselves of the timeline that we now take for granted:

• Broadband, in the form of ADSL, was first installed in a domestic home in 2000. It only became common in households around 2006, when the ease of access to WiFi, affordable laptops and the launch of the iPhone in 2007 released the internet from desktop computers set up in a spare room.
• BBC iPlayer was launched in 2007, the same year as Netflix introduced its streaming service. However, few domestic WiFi networks could cope. It was only around 2012 when download speeds allowed streaming without (much) buffering, and then largely in cities.
• In 2010 Apple announced the arrival of the iPad. Even tech magazines struggled to see where the tablet would fit. There were derisory depictions of users holding it up to their ears, as the gap between laptop and phone seemed too small to fill. But as with the iPod in 2002, the iPad soon became an integral part of most people’s tech.

2010

The alarm rang as usual at 7.30, waking first Alan Leyland then the whole of the Leyland family. As Alan lurched out of bed to head for the bathroom, sensors picked up his steps to turn the kettle on, ready for that essential cup of tea.

Downstairs the inkjet printer also woke up, spewing out the three pages of the so-called Daily Leyland. The Daily Leyland was a newspaper made up of news and features of special interest to the Leyland family. The content came from items culled daily from the internet, in accordance with a range of interest areas specified by each member of the family. John, the 23-year-old son who, much to his mother’s disgust, still lived at home, had given this name to the family online newspaper five years ago and it had stuck.

While his father was in the bathroom, he dashed downstairs to grab the three pages. It had been six pages until they had bought the duplex colour inkjet printer last year which had enabled them to print on both sides at once. The first page provided the news the family had said it was interested in. This had often led to lively discussion around the dinner table.

The paper consisted of items culled automatically from the internet on subjects that the family had specified. They had been asked to fill in a palette of preferences and had been able to choose what kind of stories they wanted to read. They had gone for an eclectic range which included novelists, aerospace, cookery, Liverpool FC, any particular share prices and pop groups.

John had recently added Argentina to the list since he was planning a trip to the booming South American country later in the year. His sister Jennifer, still at university, had requested a syndicated cartoon strip that wasn’t otherwise available in the UK.

Cicely Leyland considered herself up to date with technology and was certainly more prepared to exploit its potential than many of her friends, but still preferred the conventional newspapers and magazines delivered with the groceries each morning. The writing in the Daily Leyland was too flat, too matter fact, she complained and of course there was almost no advertising. She liked advertising. It kept her up to date with new products and sparked her imagination. How else would she know what that bright red car was if she hadn't seen the ads?

Her husband pointed out that she should subscribe to magazines like he did. That meant filling in a detailed personal profile of her likes and dislikes, her interests and ambitions as well as paying the subscription for the magazine. That way, the publisher could tailor the ads the magazines carried to match her interests, perhaps even having ads that were addressed to her personally. Some publishers offered reduced rates for information of value that they in turn could use to pull in advertisers. “Too much like junk mail,” she insisted.

Today she planned to pick up the new Delia Smith cookbook from the local bookshop. She had printed out the first chapter from the publisher’s website the night before on the inkjet printer, enjoyed it and had ordered the full copy from the publisher there and then.

The bookshop, if it could be called a bookshop, would have the book printed and bound ready for collection at 11am. Once her order had been received, the text and images had been downloaded from the publisher’s database and transmitted to the digital press in the bookshop’s back room. It would print the entire 386-page volume, which would emerge collated and adhesive bound, ready for inserting in the case binding.

While at the bookshop, which was a member of a chain owned by a printer, she would probably pick up a paperback or two. Agatha Christie and Catherine Cookson remained thankfully immune to the march of digital technology. these were still available as recognisable paperback books bought from the bookshop, supermarket or railway station in the traditional way.

What she could not see was the vast changes that had taken place in the production of the paperback. Publishers and printers were even beginning to experiment with paper produced in factories from artificially created cellulose rather from trees and other plant life.

John Leyland had recently started a new job selling legal and financial advice. One advantage of the job was that he rarely had to call in to the office. He was what, ten years before, would have been called a virtual salesman. He no longer had great piles of literature describing the various products his company sold, nor did he need the huge tomes on the intricacies of financial law that used to line many an office. Instead the same information came on CD-ROM with a user-friendly search engine added.

If he needed to access a piece of arcane case law he could find it in seconds. The relevant page of the book – for everyone still thought of the silver plastic disc as a book – would be called to the screen and could be printed from the back of the portable computer he used as an essential tool of his trade.

He needed to update the information periodically and rather than replace one disk with another, John plugged the computer into the internet port and downloaded the data direct from head office. As he worked he would be unaware whether the page on screen was one that had come from the CD, from the computer’s hard disk or perhaps, if he was still connected to head office, from the company’s database. On each occasion the page would be identical in appearance.

After work, John planned to use the same computer and CD-ROM to help restore the 50-year-old Singer car he had in pieces in the garage. It was no longer worth anybody’s while printing manuals for such a vehicle, but the CD was available by mail order and had advantages over the paper-based version. He could view that carburettor from all angles – see it in far greater detail than on the black and white image and some versions had video clips to show how to carry out the intricate adjustments.

His sister, of course, loathed car mechanics. She was studying at university, though it seemed that she was rarely on the campus. She constantly explained that apart from the social life, the occasional lecture and her tutorials, there was little need to enter the buildings. She had an E-book, a folder sized computer screen that had radio and infra red transmitter and receiver connections. This she checked for the latest reading list and browsed through the academic articles needed for the next essay.

She could annotate those pieces as if with a marker pen on a piece of paper, something her father swore he had never done in his student days. Once written, of course, the essay would be sent direct to her tutor’s e-mail queue.

The E-book was light enough to be carried anywhere and robust enough to be used inside or out. As a computer it was not powerful enough to run anything but rudimentary applications such as word processing and e-mail. However, the real computer was on her desk, That contained her coursework so far and, should she come to write a PhD thesis, that too would be composed on the computer. Her assessor would also read it in digital form and it would be published digitally also – though its readership would be very small.

Certainly her father, who was a cottage publisher, would not look at her thesis. He was plagued by unsolicited manuscripts arriving by e-mail and sure enough that morning there were two more in his basket when he reached his office.

The office was one of a number in a converted farm. Barns, a cattle shed and outbuildings had been converted to provide a number of small businesses with office accommodation. these were people who previously would have had offices in the city, but thanks to strong digital communications links, could operate from more congenial surroundings.

As well as the conventional computer, Alan Leyland had a wall-mounted flat screen used for video conferencing and a flat desktop computer that, unlike the Apple Mac or IBM PC, was a true desktop computer in that it unrolled to take the place of the desk top. Simple icons could call up the in-tray, work in progress and work completed. Like his daughter’s E-book, the desktop computer had a touch-sensitive screen to allow digital annotation of the electronic paper in front of him. A touch in the corner of the sheet would turn that one over and bring up the next in the sequence.

The computer with the box-like monitor was a powerful NC machine. Switched on it brought up the familiar Netscape opening screen. Netscape had become the bête noir of computers, usurping the role played by Microsoft a dozen years earlier. Bill Gates had left the software business to concentrate on his digital assets. He had used the billions built up through Microsoft to acquire digital rights to every painting he could. Gates was the digital master of a greater collection of artworks than any collector in history – certainly greater than any national collection.

Alan Leyland would have to grapple with the Gates Foundation later in the day when selecting images to accompany the new travel guide he was working on. First would come some basic editing and copywriting. The program was called to the Super NC from the database maintained by the service provider that he paid fees to. This had all the latest versions of all standard programs. It was reassuring to know that there was no longer any need to keep checking that he was using the latest version of all software.

The travel guides he was working on would appear simultaneously in electronic and paper format. And he would maintain the database to allow readers to check that the information was as up to date as possible. The almost instant obsolescence of travel guides was a problem that Leyland hoped to overcome with this project. The book would be available as a conventional publication from a range of outlets. He had negotiated a deal to allow travel operators to print extracts to provide to their customers in their holiday documentation.

The book would also be available on its own dedicated website, giving the publisher the opportunity to carry frequently updated material. This might include a new restaurant review, changes in opening times of museums and galleries or alterations to bus routes and travel timetables – all the facts that were liable to change between commissioning and publication of a book in the old days.

A subscription to the website, offered initially with the book and updated annually, would mean never having to buy a more up to date edition of the paper product. The CD version of the book would also include video clips to illustrate the text. The traveller could visit the city of her choice before getting there.

The raw text Leyland received needed to be edited so that its integrity remained, whatever format was chosen for publication, paper or digital. The images to accompany the text would be pulled from digital libraries like those established by many photographic agencies towards the end of the 20th century, or from the electronic collections built by the likes of Bill Gates. Electronic fingerprinting with invisible watermarks ensured that no unofficial reproduction was possible.

Collected text and images would be sent electronically to the designer, and from there to the printer or to the website, with no need for paper. Proofs would be sent back electronically to the quality colour printer sitting in Leyland's office. should something more be required, across in another building was the high volume colour Xerox machine shared between all the businesses on the site. He could use this later in the day to run off a dozen copies of the first guide to hand to the sales agents who would need a printed copy to show the buyers from major book chains.

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Gareth Ward

Gareth Ward

Gareth Ward in 1998 when he was editor of the former weekly Printing World. Ever the maverick, he was posing for the leaving card of reporter Catherine Kelly (now veteran PR Catherine Carter) and was refusing to turn the sign the right way round.

Many who know him will realise that his desk never changes. However, looking at the technology at the time – floppy disks in a PowerMac – makes his vision of the future even more remarkable.

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