Digital technologies are transforming publishing before our eyes, and I for one find the innovation exciting. The headline-grabber is the growth in e-books – bigger sales than for physical books in the US, thanks to the Kindle/iPad phenomenon. Tyler Cowen's The Great Stagnation became a bestseller although available only as an e-book (which is why I've never quite got round to reading it, although I bought it). Established publishers are becoming increasingly creative in their use of digital technologies, including intelligent blogs to build and engage with the community of readers.
But there is lots more innovation going on. This morning I sat down to note the launch of Unbound, a new site aiming to crowd-finance writing and publishing projects. It's the brainchild of John Mitchison, co-creator of QI.
A book just sent to me by a friend – J.B.Priestley's Delight – reminded me that the upsurge in new small publishing houses (it's published by Great Northern Books) is due to the reduced costs of entering the market thanks to on-demand printing and the scope for smaller print runs and much reduced stock levels, not to mention the direct access to customers via the web. In past posts on this blog I've written about the economics of this type of entry, for example in the case of the London Publishing Partnership. The same economics make self-publication more viable than used to be the case – John Kay has published a number of his own books, with great success, for example.
There's the open publishing movement – Open Book Publishers and Bloomsbury Academic have featured on this blog, and there are more and more joining their ranks. The usual pattern is that online versions are free and print-on-demand physical copies must be paid for. One variant was the conventionally published The Public Domain by James Boyle, which was nevertheless free as a download.
More and more authors are using websites as supplements to their books. A terrific recent example is Poor Economics, whose authors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have posted photos, data and powerpoints for teachers online. There are physical innovations in books too. Recently I wrote about the impending arrival of dwarsliggers in the UK.
All in all, it's a heartwarming landscape of technology-enabled innovation and competition. Although the publishing industry is fairly concentrated and with – notably in the academic journals segment – thickets of anti-competitive and anti-intellectual practice, it seems so far to be avoiding the huge mistakes made by the recording industry in responding to the digital challenge. It's great news for readers.