Category Archives: publishing

FBF10 and the Future of Books

Three weeks ago I found myself square in the middle of a hangar sized conference hall filled with book publishers. I was in awe. I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the annual gathering of all things book related. As my boss, The CEO of MarkLogic, Dave Kellogg said “This *is* the long tail of books.” Wandering around the event grounds (the fairgrounds are over 6 million square feet) one can find everyone and everything related to books from publishers and printing presses to thin paper specialists and folks making wood and stone books. It is fantastically overwhelming.

Wooden books from the Frankfurt Book Fair 2010

The conference is dominated by publishers. Thousands attend representing a hundred countries.

What I am interested in is where books are going.  If I could find someone making stone books I figured I would also find cutting edge technologists showing off the future of books.  The future of the book seemed to be simply the book in digital form on one of various eReaders. Not the exciting peek behind the curtain that I was expecting.

This technology thread was well represented of course. New eReaders, iPhone and iPad apps, conversion tools, and any number of services firms were on hand to help. But all of these technologies and people seemed to be looking at the book through the same lens, the lens of the book as an object, a complete work that should never be experienced in part. In the world of music this is akin to being limited to buying music an album at a time.

The customers I work with are pushing the boundaries. They are both big and small publishers. Some of them have gone so far as to look at the user generated conversation around a book as possibly more important than the book itself. In this cohort it is increasingly common to see the book not as an object but as content that can be used, reused, and expanded upon. Content is the key to the kingdom.

Yet everything I saw was about complete books. I certainly could have missed a vendor or two doing something interesting but it certainly was not present as a theme. While I applaud the efforts of folks to bring the book into the digital age I missed the folks doing creative work with their content (One exception was Springer although the downplayed their compelling efforts to date), going beyond the book. Maybe this is the wrong forum, maybe the majority of publishers simply have not made much progress to date, but I look forward to seeing publishers reinvent the way content is used and shared, exciting times are afoot but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the FBF10.

The New Speed of Publishing Part II

The speed of publishing is approaching real time. In some cases we are already there. Part I of this post looked at three impacts of our ability to publish at near real time speeds:

  • Existing publishing mechanisms and models begin to break or simply feel broken
  • Authors and consumers are closer to each other in that they can communicate directly and nearly instantaneously
  • There has been a loss of control of both the tools required to publish as well as content once it is published

So how are publishers actually reacting to this new complex world?

Delivery and Walled Gardens (now with peepholes!)

AOL may be the most famous walled garden while some would argue that Facebook is on the verge of taking that crown. Publishers have been using this tactic effectively for, well, essentially the entire history of publishing. If you wanted content you had to pay for it. You could always scan the headlines through the window of the newspaper vending machine but that was just a teaser. Thankfully these days you can get the gist of just about any article online but if you want to read the entire article you may need to pay-up or work through some other type of barrier before you can access content.

The Wall Street Journal created a pay wall last year for content accessed by a mobile device. For $2/week you could have the latest WSJ reports on your mobile device. This appears to have since been folded into their online subscription where roughly half the the content is free and the other half exists behind a paywall. Of course Google and others have access in order to provide the ultimate peephole into this garden through search.

Other delivery tactics in vogue include releasing content to the public after certain period of time, limited by number of pages, and through installments. The New Yorker will lock-up roughly half of their content of from the current issue only to release it all to the public as the next issue is released. Zinio delivers high fidelity digital magazine experiences through a custom reading application. They allow you to have the full digital experience for three pages worth of content before requesting payment for the magazine. Finally, Daily Lit offers content in installments. They provide limited control over how many installments they will send forcing a minimum number of interactions with the consumer.

By managing access to content, these publishers are maintaining the value of their content in a world where free is the expectation.

Agile Content?

Publishers are also responding by making their content more agile. Agile? A nice term for making content easily reusable. This occurs along multiple dimensions. Content needs to work on multiple devices/formats like your laptop, iPad, BlackBerry, or bound book. It also needs to work across levels of granularity like an entire book, an article, a paragraph, or a pull quote.

The ability to reuse content at the same granularity and within the same medium is a common starting point. For example, CQ Press, the publisher of the Congressional Quarterly, prints multiple directories reusing much of the same underlying content such as building addresses. They are creating new products based on one set of content. The cost of creating the content is fixed creating a clear incentive for reuse across different products.

Another form of content agility is seen when publishers allow their content to be remixed. Wiley recently launched their Wiley Custom Select product that allows people to create their own book from chapters of existing Wiley books and then distribute it. This is common practice at universities. Professors create specialized course reading and then need to distribute it to their students. Wiley is responding to the demand for immediacy. The books are not what you would find in a bookstore but they are better than the old Xerox copies students used to pay for; and most importantly the content is immediately available at all times.

One last example of content agility is seen in the use of micro content. This is simply the use of very small parts of content used in a very specific context. In a common and obvious example, Venture Beat tweets just the title of a new article along with the link in order to drive traffic. The content is there. The medium is there. By combining just the smallest component of key content with an easy to use and rapidly growing medium they have created a powerful traffic driving mechanism.

Granted, a title is usually an easy to access component of information. But what about the section of an article that talks about the second floor of Falling Water? The purveyors of augmented reality, essentially overlaying information onto our real world via a device like a cell phone, have the technology to identify where someone is and items that might benefit from overlay information but they don’t have the content that really provides the augmentation. Standing on the second floor of Falling Water I can imagine there are thousands of bits of content that would be useful, all created by different people. This is the ultimate long tail of content.

Wait! Who is the Author Again?

As content is released into the wild world of the internet, conversations are naturally forming around the content. Sometimes these conversations are controlled by the publisher, sometimes not. And sometimes these conversations are just as, if not more, interesting than the original content. O’Reilly publishing takes advantage of this by releasing “rough cuts” of their upcoming titles into the wild. The catch is that any comments you make can be used by O’Reilly. They have taken an uncontrollable phenomenon, people expressing their opinion online, and used it to add value to their work in progress… and they charge for this!

In an even bolder example Barry Libert produced a book called “We Are Smarter Than Me.” Rather than write the book, he and a team created an outline and recruited over 4,000 people to contribute. Rather than create content they created a framework for a conversation. While they were not able to create a completed book (a writer was called in to write a final draft – quality and curation over defects and randomness anyone?) they took the idea of conversation as content in a fresh direction.

Where to Next?

We increasingly live in a world where the old models are breaking, the line between producer and consumer is blurring, and we don’t have nearly the control over our content as we used to. While many have declared the end of publishing it is less an end and more part of an evolution. We will not stop reading (and buying!) books but we will most certainly consume new types of content and go about it in different ways. What we consume and how we consume it are shifting. We know the experimenters are out there, the real question is who will lead this evolution?

The New Speed of Publishing

Obsessed with Speed

We are obsessed with speed and the desire to make and do things faster.  Faster humans (~27mph Usain Bolt), faster machines (257 mph SSC Ultimate Aero), faster networks. Speed is a primary measure of success. Faster means better.

There are three aspects of publishing speed that I find interesting. How quickly can I create and deliver content from author to consumer, how many copies of a single items of content can I distribute over a period of time, and how many different content items can I move simultaneously.

If we look at the classic printing press these limitations are transparent. The speed at which content can move from author to consumer is bound by the physical set-up, printing, and delivery. We cna increase overall speed by printing mulitple copies of each page while it is set-up but our press has a maximum physical rate at which it can print a new page. If we need to print more copies we need more time. And we can forget about printing a different article at the same time, we would need to add another printing press. And even if we could push our printing press past physical limits, to really increase the speed of publishing we would need to speed up the entire process. We need to move the printed paper to the consumer. The speed of publishing is held back by clear physical limitations.

Now take a common example of digital publishing, the blog. Using technology that is easily available I can make those problems go away. As quickly as I can write I can publish. When I publish a blog it is available within seconds to anyone that wants to read it. I can distribute my content to anyone with a network connection. I can reach millions of people with that single click of the publish button.  If I have multiple pieces I want to publish at the same time I am limited only by the number of times I can click the publish button. Today’s speed of publishing is real-time. The physical limitations have been pushed to such extremes that they are barely noticeable to a human. As fast as an author can produce content it can be available for consumers.

So what happens when publishing can happen in real time? What happens when consumers are expecting real-time content? What happens when speed becomes a key measures of success?

Things Break!

The first thing that happens when we speed up is that things break! If I push my printing press faster than it can mechanically work it will physically break. A more subtle form of breaking can be seen on the consumer side. If I expect content like news, journals, magazines, and books to be available on all of my digital devices but I have to go to a bookstore to purchase a bound paper copy of a book the process looks broken to me.

The pressure created when we speed things up, whether coming from the producer or the consumer, creates opportunities for new mechanisms, processes, and participants. New participants have ushered in popular new models for publishing like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, all of which support real-time publishing. This is putting pressure on existing processes and mechanisms. It is changing what we need to do on the production side to meet the expectations of the consumer.

When old mechanisms break it doesn’t mean they go away. It just means they can’t support the demands of new ways of doing things. Printing presses are not going to disappear, but if we look at the volume of published material in the world they will play a smaller role as compared to blogs and Twitter.

And keep in mind the new models can and will break, it’s just a matter of time. Blogs are about 10 years old years old. Twitter is only 3 years old. The new tools that will break these models probably already exist. The question is not what to do if the model breaks again but what to do when it breaks again.

Everything is Closer

When we move faster, we are shrinking the distance between two points. A fundamental shift in distance changes our accessibility patterns which in turn impacts the world around us. In Japan the first high speed rail line was opened in 1964. An estimated 400 million hours are saved annually. One city, Kakegawa City, opened a station in 1988. Over a six year period industrial employment jumped from 88.8% to 106.9%. While less easily measured, it is believed that those in Kakegawa City enjoy a better life because they have access to broader cultural resources. And while not as widely discussed, one can imagine that other areas that were once prosperous due to proximity to a traditional rail line suffered as focus shifted to the high speed rail line.

When the speed of publishing increases, the distance between the producer and the consumer shrinks.  The obvious result is that there is less time between when content is created and when it can be consumed. When the folks at Engadget are following the latest Apple event they are publishing stories directly from the event. A more subtle aspect of this is that in order to publish in real-time we don’t just use new technology; we change our process.

In a simplified publishing model there are discrete steps and people involved in the publishing process: author, editorial, design, printing, distribution, retail. With real-time publishing it is not just the technology enabling real time distribution, it is a shift in the process. The emphasis is on creating the content and expedient delivery. The author may be the editor, design a pre-developed template, printing is simply sending bits, distribution, and retail are URLs. We gain immediacy but lose the attention to detail that individuals in the process provided.

Another effect of reducing the distance between author and consumer is that the original content is only half the story. The other half is provided by feedback from the consumer. The response from a reader might be more important than the original content. What once might have been a private exchange between author and consumer over the course of weeks is now a public exchange that can happen in minutes. Publishing is moving from a one way statement to an ongoing public group conversation.

The author and consumer are so close that the line between them is blurred. Where does a publisher draw the content line?

Losing Control

As speed increases we lose control. I grew up with the Wide World of Sports every Sunday. I will never forget the image from their opening segment of a skier losing control and literally flying over a judging stand. Another example, although more fantastical, is Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice. Thinking he can speed his chores up a bit he loses control over the very brooms he created to help him. This always reminds me of the viral power of a network. The problem is we don’t have a master sorcerer to set things straight when they get out of control.

There are two areas in particular that underscore and enable this loss of control. The first area is access to publishing tools. The tools that define real time publishing are available free of charge to anyone. An individual can be the writer, editor, and distributor in the time it takes to sign up for a web service. The second area is control over content. Individuals can share digital content with the click of a button. Although there are new efforts to control content once it is placed in the digital wild, there are no effective tools to control content once it is public. This is similar to the advent of desktop publishing but with a far greater magnitude.

Real-time publishing changes the nature of publishing content. How does a publisher manage control in a world where anyone can publish and sharing content is a matter of a few mouse clicks?

Now What?

Real time publishing is changing the nature of publishing. Our existing authoring and distribution models are cracking under the pressure, failing to meet the demands of publishers and consumers. The definition of content and publishing is changing from a statement to an ongoing conversation. The content that is published online is free for the taking.

What do we do when the publishing tools and processes we rely on are no longer effective? What do we do when the definition of content shifts under our feet? How do we control content in an environment where we inherently have no control?

While there is a lot of warranted fear and uncertainty, there are publishers that are embracing these changes and rolling with the punches. While the technology required to support real-time publishing is readily available, the user experience and business models are not. Next I’ll highlight experiences and models that publishers are working with to survive these radical changes.