Interview: Digital Publishing with Fabian Kern

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Fabian Kern: Managing Director, Digital Publishing Competence

A digital publishing professional based in Munich, Fabian has been a part of digital publishing for the past eighteen years. His area of expertise include strategies, tools and methods for digital publishing. When he is not brainstorming over business models, market development, and product portfolios, he loves globe-trotting and discovering cuisines and cultures!

Here’s a tête-à-tête with Mr. Kern to give you an insight of the digital publishing world from his expert perception:

What inspired you to build a career in Digital Publishing?

About 6 years ago I was leading a project for ebook production in a large publishing company, and during this time I began to realize how groundbreaking digital publishing developed to be for the publishing branch. I suspected major changes coming and I wanted to take part in shaping them rather than being confronted by them. I think digital publishing is the biggest revolution in the publishing industry since Gutenberg invented printing – and I embrace all the great possibilities resulting from that revolution.

As more companies are switching to the digital mode, how difficult is it to stand out in the crowd with a unique business model?

I think the time is already over to be a first-mover and really explore completely new business areas with no or few competitors. But also I think that for digital content and services there is enough room left for innovation and for ideas fitting to the customers’ needs. And, maybe it is not so important to have a completely unique business model, but to find a successful one.

You have worked in Digital Publishing for eighteen years now. What would you advice a start-up that’s aspiring to take a plunge into the world of Digital Publishing?

Of course there are a lot of key factors for building up a successful publishing startup. But the most important factors are, from my point of view: Have a clear focus on your target group and their needs. A user-oriented mindset is absolutely crucial these days, in terms of thinking as well as in terms of tools and techniques you have to know in order to explore your customers’ needs.

Resulting from that should be a simple and clear user value proposition: everything you have to explain a lot will not work in the digital economy. Once you know your value proposition, you have to find a fitting price point for your service or your product. And in the end the last key factor is great work at doing marketing: it’s not enough to do a great job, you have to be able to show it and to reach a big audience.

For business development one should have an agile mindset also. I’m quite sure, that before having success, you will change your business quite some times, and the world around you will have changed also.

But I would totally encourage everyone with a good business idea to try it. In the digital economy we see, that two kinds of companies have great advantages: The large, worldwide companies with their ability to solve every problem with investments and market domination. And also very small companies by their ability to be fast, agile and innovative.

Does the switching of paper to ebook have any effects on the learning capacity of a person?

In scientific research there is a lot of discussion about this point. And especially in Europe there are a lot of quite “digital-skeptical” people. To be honest: I personally could not give an answer to this I would be completely confident about. But I am sure, in the discussion there are some misunderstandings and misconceptions: First of all I am sure that people in these days read more than ever before in history, not less. But they often are shifting from paper books to completely different media types.

Then the few scientific approaches to learning capacity in digital media suffer from the fact that are no long term studies possible yet. I am sure when this is possible in some decades, we will learn a lot more about the way the human brain is handling information in digital media. And also I am sure that digital media requires a new kind of media competence compared to print: no one is able to use digital media efficiently from the scratch, you have to learn this as well as learning to read or write. I think we will see a lot of change here the longer people get used to digital media.

What do you foresee in the years to come? How is Digital Publishing going to change the way we are accustomed to read and interpret information?

I think the next trend we will see is the development and distribution of augmented reality / virtual reality devices and the possibility for 360 degree video screening. More and more devices will be connected with the internet, will have displays and the possibility to use digital media on them. So I think in the next years we will be always surrounded by information and the access possibilities will be more or less unlimited. The development of visual media will lead to a lot more ways to create digital media and for new styles of products.

And even in pure text-based media the connectivity of text and web will change the way of reading: with every possible hyperlink on your device you can research faster than ever before. Functions like automatic translation, read-aloud of text, dynamically generated indexes will become a normal part of the reading experience. I don’t think any more that multimedia enhancement is the most interesting development (apart from the usage for didactical content), but texts becoming smarter through underlying data structures and automated analysis will be a lot more interesting in the future.

eBook sales have seen a rapid increase in the last few years as compared to paperbacks. Is this a trend that’s going to stay here for a while?

I think ebooks are definitely here to stay. Of course the increase rates in the market for ebooks are beginning to flatten in some areas – but I think this is a completely natural effect we see due to the maturity of the ebook market. But I also think the market reach of ebook will be very different depending on the subject and genre of books you look at: In some areas digital media completely replaced print by now – in other genres maybe only a few people want to consume ebooks.  But I also think the printed book is definitely here to stay. People will always have the need for beautifully crafted and designed print media.

With Digital Publishing, we have a new issue as well, the issue of ePiracy. What can the publisher do to check the eBook from being pirated?

This is a really difficult issue, I think. And also the worst solutions are the technical one from my point of view: a rather failed approach is the use of DRM techniques for ebooks. You only prevent legit customers from using ebooks in a convenient way, but not prevent criminal users from piracy. And of course a total safety from piracy could only be achieved by a policy of total surveillance – and I think nobody can want this seriously.

In Germany we made quite good experiences with the “organisational” solution of DMCA notice and takedown procedures. Because the biggest problems with piracy are due to some few, but highly motivated criminal users distributing pirated content via file-sharing platforms.

And of course the best way to prevent piracy is not selling ebooks one by one, but earning money with another business model: In the digital economy subscription models are booming that are completely immune to piracy. Also the distribution of content and information in online databases is a similar model often used by legal and medical publishers. Another quite successful business model is distributing ebooks cheap or free, because you use them as a marketing tool for a service oriented core business. In this case piracy even would be a welcome side effect.

What kind of career prospects can we expect in the world of Digital Publishing? How can newcomers train and adapt themselves to it?

When publishing companies are smart, they will adapt to the new ways of work the digital economy generates at the moment: Working in project-oriented teams rather than in departments should be the usual way. You will see a lot more cooperation between publishers, service providers, developers and freelancers. And I expect the work life to be much more interesting than in the time when I was born.

Of course it will be sophisticated for everyone to qualify for this kind of work life: I think the best foundation for a career are solid digital skills, compared with a specialization in a field of work that companies need. But also for everyone it should be natural to have project management and organisational skills, to be able to communicate and do productive team work, to be able to present and to negotiate – often in more than one language. But the most important thing will be to be open-minded, agile and ready to learn something new every day.

Do you believe that the age of “reading” applications is going to affect the next generation of readers?

Definitely. I think, especially when the children grow older that are born in the last 5 – 10 years, when they go to university and will have jobs, this generation will behave totally different because they are used to digital media in a natural way. Maybe reading without the possibility to use certain functions of reading applications will become something strange for younger people in some decades.

Wrapping up the interview, what do you expect in the years to come?

I think the future will stay very interesting: we just saw the first years of a fast and constantly changing world of media and I think there is a lot more to come. The speed of development in technology and media will not slow down soon – and it will affect our economy and our societies in even more profound ways then by now. I am very curious what will happen in the next years and also very happy that I can spend my life being part of this development!

You can reach Fabian at:

Twitter | Mail | Digital Publishing Competence | Smart Digits | Facebook

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