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Publishers debate technology's role in their future

May 4, 2000
Web posted at: 2:29 p.m. EDT (1829 GMT)

(IDG) -- Several questions loom over the delegates to the 26th Congress of the International Publishers Association that opened Monday in Buenos Aires, Argentina: How will "new technologies" affect the publishing business? How will these technologies interact with present publishing practices? And, above all, how will the buying public react to the new proposals?

This is the first time the Congress is meeting in a Latin American city, and about 630 delegates from 62 countries are attending. Though most of them belong to the publishing industry, there are conspicuous representatives of the IT industry, including three Microsoft executives. The Congress is being held as part of the Buenos Aires International Book Fair, a traditional multitudinous event with about 1 million visitors each year.

Participants expressed both concern and hope about what the Internet and new technologies are doing to so quickly redefine the roles of editors and publishers worldwide.

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Ana Maria Cabanellas, president of the Argentine Publishers Association, welcomed the delegates and reflected on the speed and magnitude of the changes that the whole industry is facing. She acknowledged that, while this Congress was being organized, the organizers had to repeatedly change their plans to accommodate the program to the shifting trends of the technology and the market.

She also stressed the preservation of cultural identity, noting, "as 'biodiversity' is essential to the survival of natural ecosystems, the complex mosaic of world cultures should avoid uniformity if the diversity of our cultural heritage is to be transmitted to the future generations."

The representative of UNESCO's General Director, Milagros del Corral, echoed the general concerns and the disconcert caused by the rapidly changing panorama of book publishing. Books changed little in 500 years, but they have changed a lot since the last Congress, held four years ago in Barcelona, she said.

For example, the publishing industry has seen the birth of and many other "virtual booksellers" and the massive launching of the first electronic book on the Internet, Stephen King's novella, "Riding the Bullet." Within the first 48 hours of its appearance on the Internet, 500,000 copies of the novella were distributed, but its copyright protection was later violated with illegal copies springing up all over the Internet.

"What are the implications of this for the future of copyright, that constitutes the very basis of the publishing industry?" she asked.

But there is optimism regarding the future technological development of e-books. Microsoft, for one, has tapped that market. The company will launch a fully functioning electronic-book device this year and expects to be firmly established in that market by 2005, said Dick Brass, Microsoft's vice president of technology development in the Business Productivity Group. By 2008, e-book titles will begin to outsell conventional volumes in some categories, and by 2015, the transition will be almost complete, Brass predicted.

The transition will require more than simply putting books on the internet, said Michael Willens, president of West Group, a U.S. legal-market information provider.

"Books must be reconstructed for the Web," Willens said. A mere transference of the printed text to the electronic media does not work, as the reader will expect a new level of online interactivity and service.

The third revolution of books is now underway, said Roger Chartier, former chairman of the Science Council of the Library of France. The first revolution was when the papyrus roll was abandoned for the codex -- bound volumes made of paper. That was a significant change allowing for easy handling, and letting readers browse the content, something that was impossible to do with rolls.

The printing press brought the second book revolution, leading to wider dissemination of knowledge. Now we have the electronic book, both through the Internet and through the personal reading devices that will come. Electronic books are organized differently and they will profoundly change reading and study habits. Footnotes, for instance, will be replaced by hyperlinks, Chartier said.

Readers will be able to make their own book out of the many books they can browse through hyperlink connections. "It is the very notion of "book" that is being challenged by the new technology," Chartier said. "We are witnessing, first, a revolution in the way of writing; second, a revolution in the supporting media; and third, a revolution in the way of reading." Never before have three such crucial changes occurred at the same time.

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UNESCO Publishing

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