Joe Esposito bills himself as the Portable CEO.  Having piloted Britannica through the early and rocky shores of producing digital product, having headed two of the largest reference divisions and more recently working with non-profits like SRI and open source advocates at the Mellon Foundation, Esposito has a unique perspective.  Ask anyone in the digital content field and they will tell you they know the name, but not the person.  Esposito is a constant presence in Web circles about content.  Joe is often asked by digital publishers to hone their businesses and hired by traditional publishers to build their digital bridge. 

GF:  What are the market pressures behind digital content and what are the assumptions about the use of digital materials – academic and scholarly?

JE: There are big differences in the market pressures concerning digital content for the academic (meaning instructional) and scholarly (meaning material written for other researchers) segments.  In the scholarly world, virtually all journals are either available electronically or will be soon; the key driver here is the added-value of Internet searching and linking for digital content.  Scholarly monographs, however, are taking longer to embrace digital versions, largely because of the absence of ubiquitous, eyeball-friendly client reader devices.  But even here we are seeing changes, driven mostly by the desire to lower manufacturing costs for books with short print runs.

The academic arena is a curious one.  Textbook publishers would love to work in electronic form, and all of them do to some extent.  What hasn’t happened is that the gatekeepers, the faculty that chooses what texts to teach from, have not been quick to embrace digital books.  The publishers want to move to electronic form as a way to lower costs and to marginalize the huge and growing used textbook market.

GF: Is the cost of paper and physical distribution, and in the case of textbooks the used book market, responsible for the effort to shift users to digital products?

JE: Yes and yes.  It may seem counterintuitive to say so, but the cost of paper and physical distribution is a distant second to the perceived need to counter used textbooks.  Used texts now comprise one-third of the industry.

GF: What if the end users are not comfortable with digital products?  While the scholarly publishing world is almost entirely digital, did this happen easily or was their kicking and screaming?   

JE: This is a more complicated question than it may appear.  As noted above, there is a split in scholarly communications between preferred media types for journals and books:  journals are increasingly digitized, while books are mostly still in hardcopy.  As far as kicking and screaming goes, there is some of that and it will continue, but at least in the journals area, and particularly for titles in science, technology, and medicine, most sales are through libraries, not to individuals.  Librarians are without question the leading proponents of digital materials.  So to some extent, the end-users didn’t get to choose.

Are end-users comfortable with digital products?  Yes and no.  I don’t even have a printer attached to my computer anymore, but I probably belong to a minority.  End-users like the flexibility of electronic products (linking, etc.), but many are understandably resistant to the ergonomics of digital products. 

GF:   Can you dissect for us the difference between how higher education textbook publishers look at the digital question compared to their K12 or school counterparts?

JE: The short answer is that the K-12 schools are not wired.  Of course, there are some computers in labs and Internet access, but there is probably no segment of American society that is LESS computerized than schools.  There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are good ones, but those are the facts.  When you move to colleges, you have an entirely different situation.  First of all, most campuses have networks. Secondly, student laptops are ubiquitous.  Third, college texts are selected by faculty and purchased by students.  Compare this to K-12, where texts are chosen on the district level and paid for out of tax revenue.  Any business that does not distinguish between the different computing circumstances in K-12 and colleges will not be successful.

GF: When you look across the digital publishing spectrum from journals, supplements, homework help, test prep, and textbooks, where are the win-win scenarios going to come from for the publishers and for the end-users?   

JE: Theoretically, it should all be win-win.  Digital media can add value to content, and the measure of that added value lies with end-users, who learn more or learn more quickly or who see their learning placed into a larger context.  In practice, I am concerned that some publishers will try to use digital media as a way to extract more money from students, which would partly offset the benefits of electronics.  One has to hope for a highly competitive marketplace. 

But perhaps the point of your question is, which segment will likely yield a win-win situation first?  Here there is a clear winner:  journals.  Digital journals are adding tremendous value to the world of research.  The value will be slowest to accrue to actual classroom use.  This is because a classroom is a social environment, whereas most digital products are intended to be used by individuals.  But of course even this is changing.

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