As usual, some themes grew out of this TOC conference – this seems to happen every year. And of course, it varies from person to person, so I can only speak from my own perspective, and perhaps there’s a little wishful thinking there as well.
But the fact that the World Wide Web Consortium not only had a concurrent conference about the Web and ebooks, but W3C members also attended regular TOC sessions (and gave a keynote) spoke very loudly to me. And it was a one-way conversation.
I do not see very many book industry people approaching the Web. But the Web is certainly approaching the book industry. It’s not enough to digitize text, wrap it in DRM, and sell it. The Web demands more than a silo’d experience. It demands interconnectivity. Links. Since the inception of the Web, content of all kinds has not simply been digitized, but contextualized by open-ended conversations with other content. An ebook is a closed system. The Web is open – and when it encounters a closed system, it tends to find ways to open it.
The question is whether that opening happens with or without publishers. And that is the elephant in the room.
That elephant was very firmly in the room during my “Open Book” presentation on Wednesday. It was a short talk, making some short points – that there has been explosive growth in published text over the last 14 years. That putting all that text on paper is not scaleable as a business. That digitizing it is scaleable, but invokes the problem of discovery. That discovery is best enabled by interoperability and structured markup. And if publishers are not making their own texts discoverable, someone else will.
Presumably publishers are publishing because what they are publishing has value. The fact that someone else perceives that value and makes the content more valuable is – again, presumably – a good thing.
The implication, however, is unnerving to traditional publishers. Opening up content – willingly or unwillingly – means a lack of control of that content. And dialing back “control” to mere “participation” is an idea that’s extremely tough for traditional publishers to get comfortable with. For 500 years, publishers have been broadcasting, not conversing. But the Web is a conversation.
The response to my talk was indicative of this discomfort. In a way, I was satisfied with the response because it confirmed for me the difficulties that traditional publishers are having. I was also saddened by it, of course. But those emotions don’t get us very far. What does get us far is simply putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing. It’s not romantic, but it’s movement. And it’s how real progress happens.