Digital publishing in 2023: the state of play
Where do we stand in the world of digital publishing? Several factors are contributing to changes, but also challenges for this ever-changing world.
In Italy, the eBook turned 20 years old last year, amidst lights and shadows. However, it is appropriate to make a small summary of the general evolution of digital publishing in recent years.
From 2018 to 2020, from social to podcast
As far as digital publishing as a whole is concerned, there are no big surprises. Already in 2018, a report on information consumption by AGCOM indicated the video format as the one preferred by users for news consumption. The end of the dominance of the written word alongside ‘news’ could only produce alternatives, but evolution had not (yet) come to terms with the pandemic. During the 2020 lockdown, in fact, a new format began to take hold in homes, that of the podcast.
In the meantime, the role of publishers in combating fake news was consolidated, the core of digital publishing being based on the concept of reliability and verification of sources. According to the Ital Communications-Censis permanent observatory, in fact, 84% of Italians prefer to find out about news or political events through traditional channels. TV, paper and digital newspapers and radio are preferred to social media, which are considered decidedly unreliable sources.
The year 2023: category leap based on authority and authenticity
Now digital publishing is being called upon to make a sort of ‘category leap’. Rumours of its equalisation with traditional publishing are becoming increasingly insistent. On 24 January, a conference organised by the Order of Journalists was held at the National Library in Rome. This conference discussed at length the new role that digital publishing occupies on the Italian scene and the responsibilities it is called upon to fulfil. There was also talk of writing regulations that allow access to public funding, provided that authoritativeness, quality and ethicality are guaranteed.
The challenge with AI: an opportunity or certain defeat?
The last few ‘digital’ months have somewhat disrupted the information search paradigm. The advent of ChatGPT and countless other AIs has changed the way we think about knowledge retrieval and processing. These tools are catching on even in channels that had already supplanted more traditional realities: search engines.
But is this evolution in danger of precipitating a changing picture? Yes and no. There are several reasons for this. First of all, we are talking about technologies that are barely out of their embryonic phase. On the one hand they are creating a stir, but on the other they are far from being totally reliable. It is no coincidence that the innumerable warning banners and disclaimers scattered throughout the AI experience almost seem to dissuade one from believing what one is looking for. AI is demonstrating a formidable elasticity in retrieving and processing a gigantic amount of information. The problem is that this does not always turn out to be correct.
The lack of quality
As Simone Righini, SEO Manager of the Digital360 group, points out very well, before worrying about the direct effects of this technology on the publishing world, several factors must be considered. Everything written by a person has rights and free and manipulated republication is not one of them. Search engines such as Google and Microsoft have declared that they will protect clicks on results in every way. This is because digital publishers rely on this mechanism to feed and produce content, the raw material needed by AI itself to produce its results.
The big business of sponsored links is heavily threatened by chatbots. An adjustment reaction is expected. We are therefore in a picture that is not yet clear and defined. There are then many other reasons, but the only real weapon that is identified is always one. That of quality. A quality that is an increasingly rare and difficult commodity, given its inevitable and constant decline.
And the eBook?
In Italy, the digital book remains a bit of a contradiction. While it is true that we are at a birthday that is more than two decades old, the eBook culture still remains in some ways at the pole.
According to AIE data, the market for miscellaneous, which includes essays, literary works, fiction, history and documentaries, and manuals, was worth EUR 1.775 billion in 2022, down 2.5% compared to 2021. As regards the value of subscriptions, audiobooks grew from EUR 24 million in 2021 to EUR 25 million in 2022 (+4.2%). Ebooks, on the other hand, dropped by 8 % from EUR 86 million to EUR 79 million. Their publications also dropped, a figure that is still provisional and indicates -28.6% compared to 2021 and -27.8% compared to 2019 (pre-pandemic period).
In short, fewer eBooks and fewer sales. A binomial that seems profoundly linked, given that according to Giacomo D’Angelo, CEO of StreetLib, most publishers see the eBook as a not-so-welcome alternative to paper. Not widespread yet is the subscription system, except for the happy islands of the large retail chains (such as Amazon), or the MLOL lending system. Also not widespread is the willingness to release all new publications in two forms, digital and paper. To give some numbers, out of 75,000 new publications in print, only 35,000 have the corresponding digital version. A gap that risks further undermining the eBook market in Italy, which, unlike other countries, sees a crisis in both demand and supply.
However, the picture is changing and the ‘digital globalisation’ of books is unlikely to allow non-innovative models to continue for long. All that remains is to wait.