An interview on the future of the book with Dr. Mercedes Bunz and Christian Heise, who are researchers in the Hybrid Publishing Lab and part of the EU project Innovation Incubator at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Leuphana University of Lüneburg.
Will we soon have to say good-bye to the printed book?
Mercedes Bunz: The good news is that the printed book has a future. As long as books are the best permanent means of storing knowledge and e-books and iPads are incapable of decorating the shelves on our living room walls, we will certainly not part from the former. The feelings associated with putting our knowledge into physical form and holding it in our hands will not leave us anytime soon. You can see the proof in that we all take digital photos, only to decide in favor of compiling special events into photo books. The bad news is that the printed book must nevertheless take its digital twin – the ebook – seriously.
How do things look for printed newspapers?
Mercedes Bunz: If truth be told, newspapers are now losing circulation at a rate of about four percent annually. That is of course a problem. Nowadays when we are all surrounded by information, the hunger for printed daily news is waning. At lunchtime you turn instead to digital sources. Weekly newspapers have better chances. Some of our Lab colleagues who come from the newspaper industry agree with the rest who predict that the newspaper will remain, but in another form. Survival, however, depends on the newspaper’s ability to cope with the change.
Digitalization is bringing radical change to publishing in Lower Saxony too. You are examining this shift at Leuphana University Lüneburg. What is the biggest challenge?
Christian Heise: We all realize how digitalization is changing our lives and this shift has special implications for the paper and printing industry in the region. Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, print has a very long tradition in Germany and book stores, print shops and newspapers have a strong presence in the cityscape of Lower Saxony. Digitalization is bringing far-reaching change to the entire framework of this industry.
Mercedes Bunz: Surprisingly enough, printing does not cease, but it changes its role. Digitalization makes it easier for us to print; in earlier days experts were needed to make copy print-ready. The work of our Lab is to examine and shed light on these new possibilities. In other words – we are studying the continuity in the change.
Which publishers are already pursuing good digitalization strategies?
Christian Heise: The publisher who understands that he is no longer manufacturing a product but rather is providing a service to customers is already on the right track. Another way to put it: publishers with a good digitalization strategy see themselves more than ever before as a customer-oriented infrastructure service. That is not easy. Most publishers who have long been specialized in the production of printed books are confronted by a new and ever-changing technical landscape. We all see that in our cell phone, which is changing all the time. Small and Medium-sized Enterprises have an especially hard time of it.
Your Lab is primarily concerned with studying the field of humanities. What is going on there?
Mercedes Bunz: A lot. Digitalization is making possible completely new means of distribution and is prompting debate on free access to scientific content and to research data. The catch phrase is “open access”. That of course changes the entire system of research and publishing. At the Hybrid Publishing Lab in Leuphana University of Lüneburg, we are experimenting with new business models. Our overriding goals are to tell publishers what this shift based on free and open access to publicly funded research might look like and to develop recommendations on how publishing can remain a viable business. That is, a business in which the broadest access to knowledge is just as important as profit.