The Work

Tools of Change 2013: You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On

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.

24 thoughts on “Tools of Change 2013: You Must Go On, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On

  1. Hi Laura, your talk sounds interesting. Is it available somewhere? Could you say more about the reaction it received for those of us who couldn’t be there and haven’t heard?

    1. I’m preparing to post it on the Tools of Change site. The main (loud) reaction was, “How are we going to make money from books that everyone will access?”

      Which was not the point of my talk. What I did not say in response – and should have – was, “Enjoy holding onto the dwindling supply of money from books that very few will access.”

      1. Well, I would have been tempted to say: “If you can’t figure it out then you aren’t going to make money.”

        Thanks. I look forward to seeing your talk when it’s up.

  2. I was at that talk, and I’m still worrying one question like an old bone : “where is the book?” What she was really asking was: “What can publishers provide and sell if it’s not a container full of words?”

    There’s nothing wrong with that question. Publishers do have to think about new business models, but not by framing them within the old model.

    Brainstorming 101.

  3. The immediate question that springs to mind is, who is asking for this connectivity? Who is saying that the silod content is not enough? Are we assuming that this is what is required through experiences of other media, or are we basing it on market facts?

    The comment above really captures the crux of the matter. The business models right now do not provide significant margin or motivation for developing the eBook as a format further in the general trade market.

    It is almost a chicken and egg proposition. New business models are required before we can progress with the technology, but this progression is required for the development of new business models.

    It seems to me that it will take someone taking a huge risk, and throwing themselves behind something, and it succeeding for change in the trade market to occur. With pressures placed on the trade market right now, this event may occur sooner than expected.

    1. I don’t know if new business models ARE required. There was NO business model behind the beginnings of the Web. It was just a way for researchers to share their work. Business models found it, not the reverse.

      Frequently technology happens first, and commercial uses thereafter. Look at Tang. 😉

  4. I was reading today about the lifespan of a webpage (on average 100 days) and the rapid change that web content undergoes.

    It reminded me that publishers still have a place providing extended works that people have taken time to create, and which people take time to read. They also have a place preserving this content and keeping it alive over time.

    While I agree that seeing the ebook simply as a DRM wrapper is not helpful, I don’t think that straight web can serve the purpose we are looking for, because its rate of change is too rapid and the Internet is a graveyard of abandoned content, which is no more looked at than work behind paywalls.

    What we need is to develop solid technologies with longevity. Data stores that we can tap into and serve from. At the moment, however, some voices are saying dump print, switch to Dreamweaver (from InDesign) and forget all else. For me this isn’t the right choice for books.

    Publishers need to grow into tech firms, the kind of tech firms we haven’t seen yet. This is because buying in services and pumping our books into every supply chain out there isn’t sustainable. Instead we need to sit at the root of supply and take back control.

    1. Thank you for this – very thoughtful. Yes, I agree that “data stores we can tap into and serve from” is the way to go – I would also like to see those data stores linked to one another and linked to web content. Just because it’s not visited or is abandoned doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Web content doesn’t have to be ephemeral, I guess is what I’m saying. A book-as-service model may make more sense than a book-as-product model.

      1. See this is what I was saying with the ‘new business models’ above. Book-as-service is a new model for trade pubs. But I think it is yet to be proven that it can be profitable with fiction. Someone needs to make the jump and prove it can be done, or fail.

        Production costs are also a big deal. Indexing and tagging fiction is not something that can be done totally automatically. It needs human eyes and editorial minds, even if just for double-checking. This kind of investment needs to be rewarded with revenue, otherwise I fear it won’t happen on a large scale, for major pubs.

        I’m also sceptical about book-as-service from a self-pub perspective. I think that can only result in a decrease in potential revenue on individual titles.

      2. Yes, I am working on proving the concept – unfortunately a few tools have to be developed first. But we’re getting there. And I agree with you about the production costs – but some initial investment would be nice. Again, once I’ve got my hands on some tools, guess what I’ll be doing “in my spare time”?

        Many self-publishers are more in it for the spreading of their ideas than they are for any revenue. At Bowker, we see a tremendous amount of that – people publishing to get the word out about their expertise in order to get engagements (consulting or speaking); people publishing because they want a story told (memoirists, novelists). For these folks, who seem to comprise the bulk of who we talk to, they’re not looking at making a living with their writing.

      3. Agree. Ever since hearing Hugh McGuire identify the index as an API, a light turned on for me. But I have a slightly different take on how these indexes might come to life, and following up Chris Rogers’ point of the time consumed in indexing, I would respond with one of my own posts called “Hashtags not Hyperlinks: The index of the future”. The post in brief makes the point that while time might be taken identifying topics the labour of hyperlinking could be reduced (or removed) through a hashtag approach.

      4. I’ve never been a huge fan of tag clouds and I’m not sure whether they’d work on the scale needed, but in principle yes. This is why the book as API is such a great idea, because it has the potential for different people to shape the same book in different ways.

      5. I’m going to say a final thing, which I thought of after I’d hit “post comment” on the last one, and that is at the moment we see so many developers reworking classics in the iOS app store (and in part on the web), and of course part of this is because the material is out of copyright, but a bigger part is that they’re hungry for content. If they can persuaded to distribute our content in their apps (with the potential for the developer and the publisher to profit) then this has to be a good thing.

  5. “The question is whether that opening happens with or without publishers.”

    I think that friction you identify is critical. Seems to me that if traditional players take too long to figure out the business model, they won’t have to. Tools like Inklink Unbound (which I love) – and things other technology companies are creating – put the business model into the hands of producers (not just authors, but producers and marketers).

    I still personally believe that publishers bring a lot to the table though, but I felt there the balance between uncertainty and possibility was weighted toward the former.

  6. Laura, wonderful post which has been gnawing at me for hours.

    I think the role of a good publisher is to identify good content, edit it well (not just style and grammar, but also content tagging), and promote it. As shipping, warehousing, and inventory management tasks fall away, the staff resources added should be technical, in coding and data, and in online marketing.

    I’m with the W3C crowd on the issue of current digital containers: EPUB “feels” like something created by a committee: a messy, awkward, unnecessarily complicated, and not very webby approach which is probably not sustainable.

    The idea of books in apps scares me. They are device- and OS-centric and will forever require updating to accomodate changes in their devices and the OS. Working with software for many decades, as a developr and user, has shown me how short-lived many shiny new things really are.

    All this packaging in DRM-ridden, flawed containers doesn’t make a ton of sense. Books you can read on the web become a lot more practical as display resolutions improve (cf. Apple’s Retina displays). If ebooks are on the web, served to a reader as rental items (and perhaps packaged or printed and sold to collectors at a premium), they can be exposed to the engines to be searched and indexed. The publisher then works with accepted web standards and uses some form of “paywall” to manage the rentals.

    I agree that too many of the large publishers are head-in-the-sand on digital issues. Their stalling effectively holds back us smaller fry who don’t have the pockets deep enough to do major experimenting. It is going to take an established “outsider” like O’Reilly to make the breakthroughs, I think.

    1. Ric, I think you’re exactly right – rental, subscription of a sort, or a paywall system like the NY Times uses whereby Google still indexes the site – these are viable models. Safaribooks Online does this as well – but I believe they have their own index, in addition to sending the files to Google for ingestion and indexing. (So yes, O’Reilly!)

  7. So sorry I didn’t get to your talk, and that we never got a chance to chat! tag clouds, indexes, indexing, tagging, hashtags, metadata, it’s all about discovery, indeed. “if publishers are not making their own texts discoverable, someone else will” — and they’ll profit from it, too, I bet.

    Here’s to continued conversations and figuring this all out for the best,

    1. Yes, TOC was absolute madness. I’m sorry I didn’t get to your table! But let’s meet in the city perhaps next month? I’d love to talk with you about how this is all moving.

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