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On Digital Transformation of Small and Medium-Sized University Presses

2018-09-14 16:31:34
by Qiang Wei,Yi Yang

Thanks to technological innovation that has all along played an irreplaceable leading and supporting role, digital publishing has become the mainstream of the press and publishing industry. In the "Internet Plus" information era, how to achieve digital transformation is a hot issue and major concern among educational publishing institutions in China, especially small and medium-sized university presses (SMUPs).

I. Driving Forces for Digital Transformation

i. Policy incentives

As clearly stated in The Outline of the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development of the People's Republic of China, "We need to accelerate the development of emerging industries such as netcasting, mobile multimedia, digital publishing, and ACG (Animation-Comic-Game)." This is the first time that digital publishing has been included in the National Five-Year Plan, indicating that it is already a part of the top-level design of our national strategy.

In April 2015, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China, and the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China jointly issued the Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Integrated Development of Traditional Publishing and Emerging Publishing, proposing "to make the most of the technological advantages of the new-generation network to accelerate the development of new business patterns such as mobile reading, online education, knowledge services, print on demand, and e-commerce."

These guidelines and policies have demonstrated that China will actively and firmly support the digital transformation of the traditional publishing industry, and higher education publishing has ushered in a period of rapid development.

ii. Market demands

As the "Internet Plus" strategy goes deeper, both hardware and application software for mobile intelligent terminals are becoming increasingly mature. Over past few years, reading and using print publications has become less popular in China, putting traditional publishing into a dilemma of sluggish development. Digital reading over the Internet, on the contrary, is getting increasingly common, and furthermore thriving. Meanwhile, people are also turning from reading print publications to watching and listening to audio-visual materials. All this has revealed that reading is evolving into an integrated, multimedia era and digital publishing is gradually replacing traditional print publishing.

In recent years, China is stepping up informatization in education and pushing forward the concept of interactive teaching. Having grown up together with the development of the Internet in China, college students born after 1990s and 2000s have already been capable of and accustomed to getting all kinds of information on the Internet in diversified ways. Browsing digital materials particularly on intelligent terminal devices has become a major way of reading for them. Therefore, developing and publishing textbooks in paper, audio, video, electronic, online, and other forms of media is not only a problem for university presses to solve, but is also urgently needed in the higher-education textbook market.

II. Misunderstandings of Digital Transformation

i. The definition of digital publishing is unclear

Many editors of traditional publishing houses do not have a clear picture of what digital publishing is and what is going to publish. Some simply see it as converting paper books into e-books or selling paper books on online platforms. It is this out-of-date and conservative idea of publishing that stands in the way of digital transformation for traditional publishing houses. However, digital publishing does not mean to give up paper books completely, but to integrate paper books with different forms of media using innovative technologies to bring about a new, integrated medium more capable of presenting contents that meet market demands and readers’ individual needs.

ii. Digital transformation is far out of reach

Although digital transformation is financially and technically demanding and it costs at least tens of millions of RMB to build a digital publishing platform, it does not mean that digital transformation is impossible for SMUPs which are comparatively weak in capital and technology. They can build a relatively simple service and publishing platform based on their own web portal for promotion, sales, and service delivery. Moreover, before starting transformation, university presses can upgrade their traditional resources for education to digital publications to add value to educational products, improve the after-sales services for educational resources, and eventually turn themselves from a content provider to a product provider in higher education.

iii. Digital publishing is unprofitable

There is, indeed, a big gap between the expectation for and status quo of digital transformation. Many publishing houses have spent years, dedicated workforce, and big money to build a digital publishing platform, which, however, turns out to yield very low economic returns. Even if the platform can bring profits after coming into use, the amount does not make too much difference compared to the huge investment. Nevertheless, it is certain that the in-depth development of the nation-wide informatization process will make digital transformation of the publishing industry the only way for the future of publishing houses.

III. Priorities of Digital Transformation

i. Establishment of an integrated digital publishing platform

For SMUPs, building a digital publishing platform on their own is not easy. However, they can choose to get financial and policy support from major national or local projects. They can also collaborate with publishers of the same level to co-build and co-operate a digital publishing platform, or they can work with platform providers and channel partners by authorizing them to sell their proprietary digital contents so as to establish their own brand through these platform providers and channel partners.

Either way, the author would suggest SMUPs consider the following three platforms:

1. eBook platform

University presses can convert their print publications through technical means into e-books and sell them on the eBook platform. They can also transform micro-reading friendly contents to data formats readable on mobile devices and resell them on the platform.

2. Digital publishing platform

The digital publishing platform, which will be a critical part of an integrated digital publishing platform, includes an ERP system for daily management of the publisher and a management system for multimedia resources.

(1) ERP system: This system handles all daily management tasks of the publisher to ensure a paperless, seamless office process covering editing, printing, and publishing. Better yet, it provides big data analytics on the entire process to help plan publications, control costs, explore new marketing channels, and guarantee normal operations of the publisher.

(2) Management system for multimedia resources: To further develop the higher education sector, university presses are rolling out an increasing number of textbook suites, including audio-visual micro-lectures, animated models, huge extended textual information, interactive question banks, and learning-oriented games. The management system for multimedia resources is a centralized platform where the presses can prepare, generate, operate, and maintain these digital resource suites developed based on paper textbooks.

3. Database platform

For a university press, developing professional databases is the key to establishing its own brand by taking advantage of the specialties of the university to which it belongs. Database platforms include specialist databases and courseware databases.

(1) A specialist database provides technical indicators, critical data, and application information in a particular area of expertise. SMUPs, due to inadequate varieties of publications, should take into account their own highlights in publishing when building a specialist database. The specialist database does not necessarily have a large capacity, but will provide user-friendly data retrieval capabilities. University presses can choose to sell database images or to charge for user permissions by time or traffic.

(2) Courseware databases are used by universities requiring textbooks to collect digital courseware resources developed by the press and other common resources to provide online teaching-learning services for students.

ii. Development of digital content publications

SMUPs, subject to many real-world limitations, are not able to build their own digital publishing platforms as effectively as big publishing groups. However, when it comes to developing digital content publications, they have comparable strengths and same opportunities, or are even more competitive because presses of this kind are more flexible to manage.

Development of digital content publications refers to transforming the same written work into diversified content forms to adapt to different ways readers read and learn. This will better meet the market demands, expand the popularity of the author, increase the influence of the work, and enhance the core competence and profitability of university presses.

In my opinion, the development of digital content publications will go through the following three stages:

1. Early-stage publication: Multimedia Print Reader (MPR)

MPR publication is a type of publication that is developed using the MPR technology and applies to all reading contents with a talking pen. It does not require much investment, and thus is a good choice for university presses in their early stage of transformation. They can convert their print publications through technical means into MPR publications that combine multiple types of digital contents such as audio and video, to greatly improve the reading experience.

2. Mid-stage publication: Business Generated Content (BGC)

Instead of involving university presses only, BGC is a new style of publishing where the university presses, acting as a leading role, team up with institutions in all professional and functional areas to produce contents, and then edit and process the contents into digital publications on their own. BGC publication provides flexibility in investment. University presses can develop BGC publications jointly with participating institutions or with their assistance, and then share the profits by the ratio of investment. Besides, because professional institutions are much stronger in R&D than individuals are, they will definitely help generate professional contents more extensively and intensively. BGC, in this regard, fits university presses in a particular area of expertise better.

3. Late-stage publication: User Generated Content (UGC)

UGC publication becomes popular with the emergence of Web 2.0 that calls for personality, where users are both viewers and creators of contents on the Internet. Microblogging (weibo), video sharing, and other social media websites are exactly the success stories of this model.

SMUPs in their late stage of transformation can make perfect use of UGC publication to rely on a wealth of target consumers in universities and obtain a continuous supply of materials, thus to develop a sound publishing industry chain.

With the continuous development of the times, university presses will no longer serve only as a textbook publisher. They will need to focus on developing many more products associated with higher education as well. Therefore, how to take the opportunity under the national informatization development strategy to achieve a successful digital transformation is something that deserves serious consideration by every university publishing practitioner.


[1] Jia Huijuan, Cui Yanjie. Opinions on the Digital Transformation of Small and Medium-Sized University Presses [J]. Science-Technology & Publication, 2014 (3) (In Chinese)

[2] Luo Feng. Revolution of Publishing Mode of University Presses in the Big Data Era [J]. China Publishing Journal, 2014 (3) (In Chinese)

[3] Zang Yongqing. A Reading Era with No Paper Books [J]. A Vast View on Publishing, 2013 (5) (In Chinese)

[4] Lu Yongxue. Approaches to the Digital Transformation of Small and Medium-Sized Traditional Education Presses [J]. Journal of Liaoning Technical University (Social Science Edition), 2016 (5) (In Chinese)

2018-09-14 16:31:34
by Qiang Wei,Yi Yang


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