Electronic Publishing

Electronic Publishing

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Electronic Publishing


Electronic Publishing, the distribution of information and entertainment in digital format, usually including software that allows users to interact with text and images. Most forms of information can be published electronically, but users normally require a personal computer and sometimes a connection to a network or the Internet to access the information. The advent of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) in the late 1980s made electronically published information much more marketable than it had been previously. This, along with the more widespread availability of CD-ROM drives and intense interest in the potential of the Internet, has turned electronic publishing into a mass-market industry after years of being limited to specialist information.

Electronic Publishing


Commercial electronic publishing began in the mid-1970s with the development of databases of scientific, legal, and business information. These were used mainly by information specialists in large companies and universities and ran on mainframe computers or minicomputers. Few small businesses or people at home used any form of electronic publication since the information itself was too specialized, and the software and hardware needed to access it was too expensive.

The consumer market for electronic publishing really began with the development of GUIs and the CD-ROM in the late 1980s. Some industry commentators expected that CD-ROM publishing would revolutionize the publishing industry (see book Trade), but the market for CD-ROMs has been slow to develop. With the exception of encyclopedia and journal publishing, the changes to the publishing industry brought about by electronic publishing have been fairly limited so far. Some publishers who adopted the new technology as soon as it appeared found that the market was too small, and consequently they had to scale down their electronic-publishing activities. Publishers who were initially too conservative, however, have found it hard to catch up in such areas as a reference, where electronic publishing could have benefited them.


The move to electronic publishing for a traditional print-based publisher is not an easy one. Although most publishers own the rights to a great deal of text and images, these are often not held in digital format and have to be changed into machine-readable form before being published electronically. Text and images must then be “marked up” with some form of tagging so that they can be accessed and manipulated by software. Any existing digital printer’s tapes that a publisher might hold also have to be converted, often laboriously, to a format that electronic-publishing software can use. If the software has to be developed to display the text and images (for a multimedia product, for example), the cost to the publisher can be considerable. All this means that electronic publications are much more expensive to produce than print publications. However, manufacture of a CD-ROM is much less expensive than the manufacture of a book or journal, and once the software has been developed it can sometimes be reused for other electronic products, so the high initial costs of electronic publication can eventually be offset.

Some publishers, especially science and journal publishers, now publish information simultaneously in print and electronic formats, or in electronic format alone. This allows them to originate text and images in digital format, with tagging that can be used for both print and electronic delivery. The speed of electronic publication over the Internet or through proprietary online services can be very valuable for scientific journal publications since publishers can deliver rapidly changing data daily or even more frequently to subscribers. It is now so easy to publish on the World Wide Web that some researchers have even set up journals of their own, bypassing the traditional publishing process altogether. The quality of such publications can be an issue, however, since the editorial procedures that traditional publishers use to establish accuracy may also be bypassed.

Copyright is of greater concern for electronic publishers than for print publishers, since it is very easy for users to make digital copies of electronic publications and distribute them, or sell them, to other people. To address this issue, copyright law is being revised at both the national and international level to take electronic publication into account. Several systems exist or are currently being developed, that allows publishers to encrypt their content in ways that will allow only authorized users to access it.


Online services offering databases of specialist business, scientific, and legal information on subscription made up the early professional market for electronic publication. Such databases are still heavily used but are now mostly available on CD-ROM or on the World Wide Web. Business news services are now also part of the professional market for electronically published information, with subscribers receiving only those news stories relevant to their interests.

The consumer market for electronic publications is coming to be dominated by the World Wide Web. Many newspapers now have websites where news can be updated hourly or more frequently, although these sites are not yet very profitable since their advertising revenue is not nearly as substantial as revenue generated from traditional print advertising. Consumer reference products such as encyclopedias and to some extent dictionaries, atlases, and other reference works make up a large part of the CD-ROM market and some may in time be accessible over the World Wide Web. These products are more marketable in electronic format than other types of a book because they benefit more from the kind of automated searching and incorporation of multimedia elements (such as video and animation) that software allows. Educational publishing has also benefited from CD-ROM delivery for some of its products, as multimedia content is both attractive to students and can help them to understand complex concepts.

Multimedia games on CD-ROM are also a substantial part of the consumer market. These allow users to interact with characters and participate in adventures in virtual worlds that are often intricately designed and very complex. Multimedia games are usually not based on existing games but have largely grown out of the potential to manipulate images, video, and sound made possible by increasingly powerful personal computers.


Many industry commentators believe that the Internet in general and the World Wide Web, in particular, will come to play a central role in electronic publishing, although the speed of access at present is too slow to allow multimedia applications to run acceptably on it. Digital Versatile Disk Read-Only Memory (DVD-ROM) is likely to be a successor to CD-ROM, its main advantage being increased storage capacity for space-intensive multi media elements such as video and audio files. However, DVD-ROM development costs are likely to be even higher than those for CD-ROM, and there is no compelling reason to believe that DVD-ROM will do better in the marketplace than CD-ROM. A small number of manufacturers are now producing simple set-top boxes that allow consumers to use their televisions for access to the Internet, but the convergence between broadcasting (see digital Broadcasting), personal computers, and the telephone that has been predicted for some while has yet to come about.

Although it has been suggested by both critics and advocates of electronic publishing that it might lead to the demise of the printed book, this seems unlikely, at least in the near future. At present, there are no significant advantages to reading a novel or magazine in electronic format, and these types of publication are less expensive to produce in traditional print format. The market for hand-held devices that make the electronic text more portable has never really developed, probably because books already offer readers portability and ease of use at a relatively low cost. It seems most likely that both electronic and print publications will continue to exist side by side well into the next millennium.

Electronic Publishing

Contributed By:
Hugh Look

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