Pros and Cons of Electronic Publishing
Motivations for publishing online are varied and complex.
Before 1994, the Internet was in essence a 'free' medium, characterized by an open sharing of
information, without regard to the commercial possibilities of digital publication. The
development of the graphical Web browser, combined with the steady increase in access speed,
produced a much wider interest in the medium, expanding the user base far beyond the original
circle of academics and hobbyists. The first commercial web sites and 'dot.com' companies
appeared not long afterward, though many lacked (and still lack) viable business models for
making money online. In the late 1990s, the most common approach was 'Let's just get online
now and we'll figure the money stuff out later'. Since the spring 2001 downturn in technology
stocks, the level of interest among commercial enterprises for all things digital has become
substantially cooler, and many companies have retreated to a more conservative position, either
scaling back or cancelling their online ventures entirely.
For many print publishers thinking about expanding into digital publishing, the current 'wait and
see' atmosphere comes as something of a relief. Selling books is a difficult business at the best of
times; adding the expense of producing simultaneous digital editions without the presence of any
clear solutions for the problems surrounding rights and licensing and secure distribution of
digital publications is prohibitive for many publishers. On the other hand, some publishers have
found that capitalizing on the general aura of excitement surrounding new technology by
producing digital publications on a limited scale has boosted the sale of their print titles.
For other types of publishers, though, commercial success isn't an issue. Many individual writers,
small magazines, specialized small presses, non-profit organizations and government
departments have found the digital realm to be ideally suited for their purposes. Digital
publications can be produced and circulated relatively inexpensively, and can reach a readership
far wider than small-scale print publications. And beyond the selfish notion of 'publicity', many
publishers see the process of creating broader access to texts of all sorts as a public good.
Here are some of the serious arguments for why electronic publishing isn't such a great idea:
Rights Management and Control: it's virtually impossible to keep someone from copying
an electronic publication if they have their mind set on doing so. Further, there are no
effective national or international systems for managing rights and licensing issues
around electronic publications, though some companies, such as ContentGuard, have
made significant advances with XrML (Extensible Rights Markup Language).
Startup Costs: outlay for the training, hardware and software necessary to publish
electronically can be considerable.
Competing Standards: There are currently a multitude of competing incompatible formats
and delivery systems for electronic publications; some even require specialized (and
expensive) hardware to access them.
Vague Market: it's unclear who will buy electronic publications, and how they will buy
them. The current downturn in the fortunes of the technology marketplace has created an
atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt around electronic publications, and many