Dr Liz Marchant’s Digital Lunchtime Lecture - (#DLL15)

by Anna Wallis

When you take your seat at a lecture entitled “Digital Publishing – A View from an Educational Publisher” you expect to learn about two things: digital publishing and educational publishing. What you don’t expect is to have a mirror held up to your entire life as a consumer.
Liz Marchant, the Head of Science Publishing at Pearson Education, started by telling us about the challenges and benefits that are unique to digital products. She then stressed the interconnection of digital and print educational content development. She painted a wonderfully optimistic picture of what’s possible with the technology we have today.

I thought of one of my primary school teachers who, in 1999, wistfully described the classroom of the future, where each student’s desk would be a screen, where we could watch demonstrations and submit assignments with the press of a button. We all said, “Yeah, yeah, whatever” and continued drawing pictures of Pokémon. Well, according to Liz Marchant, that classroom is now possible. Except for one thing: human nature.
“This market,” Liz told us with a sigh, “still really values a textbook.” To Pearson’s chagrin, all of its digital innovations are still tied to print books.
At first I thought this was just nostalgia for print, a habit that we’re all slow to break. However, after hearing about the many ways it was affecting the publishing industry, I started to believe it was deeper than that.

The reverence of print came up again when Liz told us about pricing: that people perceive online content as free, despite the resources that go into developing it. And yet again, when she discussed security: how, because people see no problem with sharing digital content, it’s necessary to define and restrict what they are able to access. 

Each challenge seemed grounded in our linking ownership with physical contact. If there is no physical contact with a product – if everything is accessed on a computer screen – we don’t feel obligated to pay for it because we don’t feel that we own it. Contact with something also gives us a personal connection with it, making, say, a print textbook seem more legitimate than an electronic one.

I realised how closely this affects publishing as it moves forward into digitisation, that the difficulty with business models for digital publishing is rooted in something primal: a need to hold things in order to feel that we own them.

Liz, for example, listed all the different pricing models Pearson has tried for digital content. Each one is hindered by the fact that the products don’t fit the same idea of ownership as physical objects. You can’t reuse it. Or the subscription will expire. These don’t sit well with humans who are used to keeping and sharing what they own at will.

Maybe it’s a matter of framing it as a service instead of a product. Or maybe it’s a matter of relinquishing some control over customers’ access to these products. Either way, Liz’s lecture did cover digital and educational publishing, but it also unexpectedly shed light on a basic – albeit frustrating – piece of human behaviour.

About the author of this article

Anna Wallis is an MA student in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University. She hails from California and can be reached on LinkedIn.

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 18 Feb 2015 around 9am

Last edited: 18 02 2015