In 1994 I attended a summit on electronic publishing and wrote the article below. Re-reading it I searched for whether the issues for publishers have changed.

Today the buzz is about mobile, cloud and tablet technologies. But I concluded that from a practical and legal perspective, remarkably little has changed. The short proof is the checklist at the end of the article. Read it first.

“My words fly up but my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” Claudius’ famous lament was echoed in numerous comments made during the Electronic Publishing Summit held in Sydney on 5 September 1994. It was jointly convened by the Australian Book Publishers Association [Ed – now Australian Publishers Association] and the CSIRO with the aim of reaching consensus as to recommendations. Instead many questions flew up, few were answered definitively.

This is the nature of the times. We are in a revolution with a number of phases. At the head of the current agenda are CD-ROMs and online technologies. There were no voices at the summit suggesting that these new means for distributing information and entertainment are going to go away.

"gullivers_travels_first_edition"After five good introductory speeches the summiteers divided into subgroups. The subgroups separately debated platform, distribution, content, marketing, copyright and other issues and then reconvened to share observations and recommendations.

So what thoughts arose about the emerging architecture of the electronic publishing environment? It is good to begin with the protagonist in this play – new media technology. Reporting back from the platform subgroup, Marius Coomans of Firmware Publishing noted that “By brute force the PC has become the standard. The Internet is fast becoming the preferred conduit through which a range of users obtain information.  And user interface standards are needed for the wide range of applications in electronic publishing.”

The subgroup for electronic libraries came back with an illustration. Someone described it as being like a Bruce Petty cartoon. At the bottom was a box full of “data”, above it a smaller box headed “graphic user interface” and at the top a final box inside a revolving halo titled “search engine”, next to which the words “value added” appeared.

"Minitel"Now this is a real issue: do publishers need to add any more value in the electronic publishing realm than they do in conventional publishing?  The fact that there is no established electronic publishing model will tie up the industries involved in this realm in many more soliloquies, at least where economic and legal issues are concerned.

Regarding economics, as noted by the subgroup headed by Jim Davidson of HarperEducational, players in electronic publishing need to “agree to discount structures – eg for CD-ROMs is it to be a discount of 33%, 40% or 45% or something else?” Davidson also said that “Everyone knows what it costs to make – $A125,000 to $A350,000 is the cost of mastering a CD-ROM – but few know what to charge for it. Users become very sophisticated in quickly dumping information off online systems if the charge is time based. Charging by information units may provide an alternative.”

Regarding legal reform, there was consensus among the participants that rationalisation of copyright law for the new media will not occur in the short term. The copyright subgroup did however make certain recommendations. Firstly, available technological means for protecting intellectual property should be researched and documented. Secondly the ABPA [Ed – now APA] should maintain a strong profile in the review of the law (or the lack of it) affecting moral rights, multimedia works and the technologies being considered by the Broadband Expert Services Group. As for publishing contracts, it is no secret that not all publishers have taken the vital step of properly updating their existing standard contracts for current magnetic and optical disc technologies, let alone for online services.

The diverse backgrounds of the summiteers confirms that electronic publishing has become an expanding universe. In addition to trade and educational book publishers, there were CD-ROM developers, academics, research scientists, software developers and librarians. This diversity also illustrates that the answers sought would be best derived from continuing policies by the ABPA which are inclusive rather than exclusive of other players. The ABPA has a multimedia working party chaired by one of the speakers at the summit, Oliver Freeman of International Business Communications. The fruits of its thoughts are likely to appear closer to the end of 1994. As someone quipped at the summit, a name change may be in order for the ABPA – perhaps the Australian Binary Publishers Association!

"rss_paper_scrap"The impression left by many was that electronic publishing is a standards-free zone. Dr Bob Jansen, Principal Research Scientist, Knowledge-based Systems with the Information Technology division of the CSIRO spoke at length about the significant funding proposal before the European Union for electronic publishing. His perception that there is an urgent competitive imperative for standards led to his suggestion that Australia needs a centre of electronic publishing and government support for it. In audience discussion near the end of the summit the centre concept was initially viewed as involving “pre-competition cooperation” with participants sharing costs much as they do in industry associations.

"WikipediaThumb"However another of the summit speakers, Robert Sessions of Penguin Books, joined with others in questioning to what degree such a centre could be “pre-competitive”. Sessions noted that his company is currently in discussions with a number of parties involving potential alliances or sharing of information with a view to progressing electronic publishing ventures.

The summit closed on the recognition that there was an urgent need to monitor legislative developments and respond to pressing platform and standards issues. Since few firm resolutions emerged, to progress discussions it is appropriate to record a few personal observations.

Descending from the summit, here then are five brief homilies (there are others but space is limited) ending off with a checklist of considerations for electronic publishers.


Firstly, what will be the phases of the changing market? For some years, CD-ROMs will be the dominant electronic medium, Robert Sessions suggested 3-5 years. Currently the online medium is also expanding exponentially but due to bandwidth problems for delivery of multimedia via existing telephone lines, the low installed base of modems and the copyright concern of intellectual property owners, look for online publishing as a second phase. As players in a technological revolution publishers can learn from political revolutions – both involve a series of big and small phases in which different opposing forces make strategic and tactical moves. And so electronic publishers in Russia are now singing the song: “Step one CD-ROM, step two online.”


Secondly, what is the market size? For CD-ROM hardware, fairly reliable sources have estimated that in 1993 there were five million CD-ROM drives worldwide, 2.5 million more than in 1992. In 1994 that growth curve has steepened even further and is mirrored in Australia where the industry estimate is that by late 1993 there were about 100,000 drives in use. The guess is that there are now somewhere between 100-200,000 drives in use. Initially most were bought by business and government organisations. Now they are becoming common in homes, educational institutions and community libraries.


Thirdly, what business model should publishers consider? Broadly speaking CD-ROM production resembles film production and CD-ROM distribution resembles book distribution. To build the necessary alliances and relationships publishers need to put into place new financial, managerial and contractual arrangements. For networking, one good forum to join is AIMIA or the Australasian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association which was formed in 1993 and has branches in most states. To quote the US head of the communications giant, AT&T: “Because we don’t know exactly what the future looks like, we want to learn about it in joint ventures, investments, partnerships and trials.” [Ed – AIMIA now stands for Australian Interactive Media Association.]


Fourthly, how should publishers secure their assets? For new works, this requires a legal audit to check the suitability of standard permissions and contracts. When dealing with backlist titles, publishers should thoroughly review their contracts and seek to strengthen their rights position. If assets are secured, publishers can benefit from a growing source for rights and permissions revenue from CD-ROM producers and online service providers who need vast amounts of content. The word will soon get around as to who are the publishers who can readily, efficiently and economically act as content vendors and warrant that rights granted are unencumbered. When you get down to it, the key asset of an established publishing company is in its contracts for its backlist. In a nutshell, the new era requires its own set of checklists and contracts.


Fifthly, why should publishers value their assets? Let’s put this in a context: what should a publisher charge for reproduction of its text or photographs in a licensed CD-ROM? Point one: while the technology is relatively new, the valuation process involves familiar enquiries measuring a host of factors. Point two: no measurement is possible without reliable data. Point three: via the ABPA [Ed – now APA], AIMIA, business consultants or on their own, it is critical for publishers to keep up to date on trends with different platforms, operating systems, formats and market sectors. To be electronic publishers they have to have a position in the marketplace tribal wars between IBM, Apple, Microsoft, Philips, Intel, Sony, Motorola and others pushing their incompatible technology eg CD-ROM, CD-I, CD-ROM XA, 3DO and PDA.

"copyright_google_books"We may be in the last decade in which print on paper remains the primary medium for information. Electronic data is now being copied, manipulated, networked and distributed in unlimited ways. Certainly, with outlining, word searching, hypertext and most recently, General Magic’s information agents, new information technologies are most suitable for reference works especially those in need of regular updating (eg bibliographies, encyclopaedias and dictionaries and texts for businesses, scientists and professionals).

Practical Checklist

Ultimately publishers (together with re-skilled authors, illustrators, graphic designers and editors) will have to unlearn many habits so as to produce works which use the awesome potential of the new technologies.

Their publications online or on disc will then creatively and financially reach levels now achieved from works in print. At each step of the way they will need to know where they stand legally. So for each proposed title, rights and permissions departments will need to more thoughtfully conduct the “what if…” process of contract negotiation and drafting. Confronted by a new work, in future the checklist of questions may be:

  1. What is this proposed publication?
  2. Who are its readers or users?
  3. How might it be read or used on publication, and some years later?
  4. Should audio, animations, photographs or video be added?
  5. What finance sources might arise if such things are added?
  6. How should you price and segment the rights granted or sought?
  7. What type of protection against copying should be incorporated?
  8. When might the publication’s contents become obsolete?
  9. What software and hardware is involved, what are the horizons of their market adoption and when might they become obsolete?


  • French scholar at work c1480
  • Gullivers Travels – first edition, 1726
  • Minitel – online publishing in France, 1980s
  • RSS feed technology, 1999
  • Wikipedia, 2001
  • Google Books Search, 2009
Noric Dilanchian