Cultural democratization, digital technologies and the Web : a case study of the publishing industry

by Christian Robin, lecturer in communication and the science of information, Université Paris 13, Labsic member


The publishing industry is composed of several editorial sectors, internally composed of multiple ecosystems, diverse in their nature. However, these compositional specificities are often overlooked, in favor of a dominating paradigm: novels, or scientific publications, for example. Robin cautions against such generalizations, especially in light of the sweeping wave of digitalization. The consequences of this movement directly impact the publishing industry and its respective cultural industries: higher concentration of local and international competitors, emergence of new competitors, and intensified externalization.

To begin his discussion, Robin examines the uses of digital platforms to assist illiterate or dyslexic adults. Robin notes that certain populations of handicapped adults heavily rely on Google to find autocorrect and syntax-related websites so as to compose emails and text messages. Internet has thus facilitated communication for those populations that would otherwise remain silent due to personal obstacles.

Robin goes on to note that Internet has in reality facilitated free expression for all, through PAO (Publication Assistée par Ordinateur), the series of digital processes leading up to the publication of a document. Furthermore, these technological devices assist authors to become their own editors through PAO software. Consequently, more and more authors are writing and publishing, as the costs of the publication process have been significantly diminished since the mid-1990s. According to Robin, the low return on books fosters the development of market niches and more up to date publications. Authors are also able to better manage their budgets through management software found online. The self-publishing industry is thus developing, namely in “amateur” sectors, namely literature and social sciences, which require smaller investments.

Robin also contends that editorial tasks are becoming increasingly externalized; freelance editors are reinventing the rules of the game. As a consequence of the democratization of the publishing industry, the relative value of books decreases, though does not necessarily entail a decrease in quality, defends Robin. In addition, the content of books is more diversified and Internet fosters rapid exchanges of published material. However, the future of bookstores and publishing companies may be in peril due to the digitalization of the publishing process.

Indeed, Robin uses the example of the encyclopedia and dictionary industries: while dictionary sales represented 20% of book sales in France in the early 1990s, today, they only represent 3%. Robin explains that this drastic drop is not the sole consequence of Internet and of free digital platforms such as Wikipedia. Initially, the printed encyclopedia targeted a wealthier population, and was offered at a collector’s price. In the mid-1990s, Microsoft provided the first encyclopedia, Encarta, in CD-Rom format, priced at 120 euros. The decrease in PC devices, and the inclusion of Encarta in computer’s installed software, made the purchase of a printed encyclopedia collection unfathomable. This technical shift prompts a change of cultural practice: the book is no longer a sacred object. Certain publishing houses, such as Hachette, attempted to compensate these losses by the publication of pamphlets, featuring diverse objects and sold as a collection. Finally, linguistic dictionaries incurred losses as well; however Internet (translation devices) is more directly responsible for this decrease. In Middle Eastern and Asian countries were quick to adopt the digital language dictionary, contrary to European countries; the shifts in the publishing industry are thus culturally specific as well.

The qualitative debate is also of interest. Are Wikipedia article writers more experienced than other online encyclopedias? How can the content be verified? It remains undeniable that students rely on Wikipedia, despite teachers’ best efforts to introduce more legitimate content.

Publication houses specialized in encyclopedias attempt to narrow their target audience – libraries, schools. Multi-volume encyclopedias have vanished, as large distributors no longer sell them in their stores. It appears that a more general audience has ultimately benefited from the digitalization of encyclopedias and dictionaries, as access to their content is now free. Access to information has been democratized; nevertheless, Internet users must be parsimonious in their selection of information. Furthermore, online distributors, such as Google and Amazon, have benefited the most from this shift. Apple, which sells tablets, has also profited from the increase in online readers. Thus, the companies that produce digital information, as well the physical medium on which this content can be accessed, have gained the most from the digitalization of the publishing industry – to the detriment of smaller, more traditional in-house publishers. We are witnessing the rapid democratization of information, but at what price?