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From the Tech Desk

Book Industry Study Group Addresses the Shifting Role of Technology in Publishing

For a few years there, it looked like digital platforms were the future of the book publishing industry. eBooks were going to take over, readers were going to trade paperbacks and hardcovers for Kindles and iPads, and the industry was going to have to get onboard or suffer the consequences. We sure had a good cautionary tale to look at in the music industry, where the record labels did try to fight against digital technology and have never stopped paying the price. So when the time came to start publishing digital versions of books and making nice with the likes of Amazon and Apple, most publishers did it without dragging their feet too much.

But publishing in 2017 doesn’t look the way most of us thought it would. Readers haven’t traded hardcovers and paperbacks for e-readers. If anything, e-readers were a fad. You don’t see many Kindles or Nooks on airplanes these days. Some people are reading on iPads or on phones, but just as many are reading physical books. That fact—and what it might mean for the future of digital technology in book publishing—was central to the Book Industry Study Group’s most recent Making Information Pay conference, which took place in New York City on April 21.

At the conference, David Walter, the executive director for client solutions at the NPD Group, made a point of stressing that hardcover books outsold eBooks in 2016—for the first time in five years, no less. (The NPD Group, in case you’ve forgotten, is the company that bought BookScan from Nielsen back in January.) Walter’s statistic would seem to signal the death knell of eBooks. It might even signal the publishing industry’s retreat from digital formats and back to analog. After all, if consumers are still buying and reading physical books, then is there any point in publishers spending lots of money on digital? Would we have been better off not heeding the warning that the music industry seemed to send—that our industry would ignore digital at its own peril?

Walter thinks the true takeaway is far more complicated than that. The theme of this particular Making Information Pay conference was “The Evolution of Delivery: Getting More Content to More Readers,” and continuing to embrace and invest in digital formats is certainly a pursuit that will help publishers reach more readers. For instance, even if print books are outselling eBooks, e-retailers are still beating brick-and-mortar bookstores in terms of sales—thanks in part to the meteoric rise of audiobooks.

While certain subsets of the book market are turning away from eBooks a bit, others seem ready to embrace them. That’s certainly the case with the textbook industry, which is struggling to sell physical editions to students and educators—at least in the volume that it once did. There could be any number of reasons for this decline, from the exorbitant prices of physical textbooks to how quickly they fall out of date, all the way to the hassle of lugging around three-pound hunks of paper and cardboard when an e-reader, tablet, or laptop would suffice. Walter said that publishers might be able to keep textbooks relevant either by offering integrated digital content (something some textbook publishers have already experimented with) or by striking deals with colleges and universities to include textbooks in the cost of courses. The latter option could inspire some protest from students, though—especially those who try to get through courses by purchasing older editions of textbooks or not purchasing books at all.

Such textbook-related topics will likely be discussed in greater detail at the next Making Information Pay conference, which is scheduled for November and focuses exclusively on the higher education publishing market. Previously, the Making Information Pay conference was an annual event. However, this year, the Book Industry Study Group has scheduled three MIP conferences. “Getting More Content to More Readers” was the first one. The second and third events—the Higher Education session and “The Accessibility Supply Chain,” which will deal a bit more with content delivery—are scheduled for November 9.

In addition to David Walter’s presentation—titled “Diversity & Disruption: Format and Channel Trends in the Trade & Higher Ed Sectors”—the “Getting More Content to More Readers” conference included talks from data analyst Leigh Watson Healy, digital strategist Bharat N Anand, Ashleigh Gardner of Wattpad, metadata expert Katie Palencsar, Ann Arbor District Library Deputy Director Eli Neiburger, audio publishing authority Michele Cobb, and Daniel Moyer and Edward Moore, both experts in the area of enriched content. Each speaker touched upon different facets of digital technology and delivery within publishing. Gardner, for instance, spoke about how serial story platforms like Wattpad (and Radish, which we featured in From the Tech Desk a few months ago) are driving a “mobile-first approach” to reaching readers. Palencsar, meanwhile, spoke about how metadata tagging of a book’s “educational attributes” can put it on the radars of librarians, educators, and students.

To learn more about the Book Industry Study Group’s recent conference on the evolutions of publishing technology and book delivery, click here.

Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at