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The future of the book

The book of the future requires collaboration, so let's start the change before we have to.

FutureDuring lunch at TOC last Wednesday, we had a roundtable discussion that centered on the future of the book. The conversation touched on many different areas, as you would expect. From distribution and inventory, to pricing and formats, to audience ownership and engagement. It was an interesting discussion but challenging because there is not one solution that will fit all publishers. We all have unique brands, focus, and
particular ways of publishing, so finding a silver bullet will be virtually impossible.

It occurred to me, that as an industry, we should try to build a list of important
concepts, features, and ideas that will help us all work towards building The Book of the Future. So I
will start the list here, and invite everyone reading to contribute to the list through the comments below. Pass
this post onto your colleagues and start a discussion. Let’s change the The Book of the Future before we have to.

These items are in no particular order.

Easy-to-use authoring tools that enable content creation and distribution

Most publishers realized the inherent benefits of getting content into XML/DocBook.
Yet most authoring tools that are easy to use, are horrible at getting usable XML out
of the authoring environment. I know, many purport to offer XML conversion, but it
is still an arduous process to clean up those conversions, and what a waste of time
and resources. The existing XML tools on the other hand, are typically for the more
geeky authors who write in mark up naturally. They are not intended for significant works
with lots of art, cross references, interesting layout. XMLMind, ASCIIDoc and Oxygen are
the three that we recommend for creating easy to generate and use XML. There are
proprietary tool chains that work for some publishers relatively well but they are not
shared with the industry. There are other significant problems with XML — it’s based
on the idea that content and appearance can be separated, so, as I already mentioned, it’s not particularly suited for books with significant art, or any type of book where the layout is part of the content.
So I think one component of The Book of the Future needs to
center on making the upfront writing and creative work easy, intuitive, and productive
for authors. Better enabling our authors will benefit everyone, including
the cheese sandwich makers.

Readily available in all formats

Today we kind of know what formats people want to read their book in. Print, APK, DAISY, ePub, Mobi, and
PDF are the most notable formats today. But what will be the most favored format three years from now? You
might pick one format from the previous list, but what if some wiz-bang new device comes out and makes reading
an amazing experience anywhere you are without effort, and knows when your eyes have stopped focusing so
it tells you to take a break. The point is, we’ll need to be able to get our content onto devices and formats
that are not yet available. So how do we get authoring tools to make it easy to get into all these different
formats without a resource investment that kills a reasonable P&L? And how do you have print inventory right-sized
to a changing market, yet stock is on hand? Can publishing do Just in Time much like Amazon does for
retailing? The Book of the Future will need to be in all formats and all channels
on its pub-date.

Continuous Updates (more tech-oriented and some non-fiction)

For many categories in publishing, the content that is published has a very short shelf-life. There
is a need to keep content updated and relevant. But how do you make changes without taking back inventory or
having two similar, but not exactly similar products on the market? Is the solution similar to what happens
when you purchase an App in an App Store? In other words, will publishers start pushing out updates, new chapters,
and errata fixes, to registered users for all their content in the future? Will there be “in-app” purchases
similar to what we see in app now? In essence, if someone purchases content, should they get lifetime updates, enhancements,
revisions, fixes and the like? Is this something that The Book of the Future needs to provide?

Rich media integration

We all know about, or have seen examples of integrated media.
Will combining several of the various elements become the expected minimum viable product? Will publishing
be hiring more producers with TV production in their background for creating great learning experiences?
Will the early rich-products look like the early web-pages with a feature-overloaded look and feel? Are we
going to see Media Designers become the highly-paid and coveted jobs in publishing? Will The Book of the Future
really be a media-container for more than a book?

Socially and personally connects readers to publisher/author/community

Wow, this was a long time coming. Audience has always been a key focus of authors and publishers, but
now days, we are getting closer to our beloved followers. Connecting readers to authors, and authors to readers,
and readers to like minded readers, and readers to publishers, and publishers to communities is getting easier
with the abundance of social media options. Will connecting social media as an in-App experience take
publishing to a new level? Will making content passages easier to share help sell more books? Will publishers
need to abandon DRM to make this social connections work on a large scale? Will books be judged based on how
many followers, friends, posts, tweets, status updates, etc. there are related to the book? Will
The Book of the Future be a social event rather than a static view of content?

Engages the distracted and partial attention society

We’ve all heard about how our attention is being overloaded by too many
media and information options. How are we going to create learning experiences that are tailored to individual
attention spans. Some people may be able to focus for 20 minutes while others may last several hours before needing a
break. How do we win the the competition for our readers minds? Is the solution to create many smaller loosely
joined components that work at bursty intervals? Does this let the reader learn, read, and
enjoy at their pace? Will the social anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and watching the digital natives
provide us with the insights to build The Book of the Future.

Written and translated simultaneously

This has been long overdue and needs to be done soon. The simplified process for writing a book is
1) author writes, 2) publisher edits, 3) author/publisher approve changes, 4) book is printed and distributed
in various channels, including digital. In the majority of cases, why are we waiting to throw the project
over the fence to the international rights groups to begin translation, after the fact. In today’s world, with all
the amazing technology, why do we wait for translations to happen? We have tools like Subversion, and Git that
can make this straightforward, so why not write a chapter and have a translater work on a forked version.
Translators would see any changes to the original and could alter their version. Will The Book of the Future
be published in several languages simultaneously?

Gamification features

There is plenty of evidence showing that people react to Gamification principles
in a compelling manner, and in some cases an addictive manner. So why is the publishing industry waiting to
build this into our products? Are we waiting to make sure it ‘sticks’ before we invest resources? Some people
say Gamification will be to this decade what Social was to the previous decade. Can you imagine that people will
earn things for reading, learning and engaging with your content? Shouldn’t students get more immediate feedback
and fun from their textbook? Would it be great to leave one device you are reading on, continue your journey, game,
assignment and login to a different device and pick up where you left off (some devices have this in nascent form now)?
Will Gamification be a big part of The Book of the Future for your organization?

Access from the source

Will your future products put your customers more in touch with you, the publisher, rather than
the retailer, professor, bookstore, or some other intermediary. Will in-book purchases (like in-App purchases)
put you closer to your audience? Will your direct sales of The Book of the Future make up for
any declines you see in your existing channels and will you create new channels?

Culture, staffing, and innovation

As the landscape in publishing changes due to technology, disruption in market distribution, and a new
generation of readers, will your company undergo a change in culture, staffing and leadership? When you compare
the publishing industry to others, it looks as though we have moved quite slowly. Is Google the same company it
was 10 years ago? Microsoft? Yet many in publishing have done very little to innovate and ignite this industry.
As an industry, need to give Amazon a boatload of credit for forcing us all to be more innovative. Does our culture
of building great, noble and scholarly works need to change to a more ‘fail forward fast’ mentality where we
are meeting market demands in a “just in time” manner. Much more like a software company that releases early, often
and continuous. I have heard over the years, that the publishing industry is like running with the slow kid on the
block, so are going keep dragging our feet, or look for talent to bring in from other industries to help us
create The Book of the Future.

Open source

A natural reaction in a declining market, from most corporate entities, is to hoard their assets and keep them safely guarded with
DRM and the like. This is a closed and proprietary view of doing business. There are enough case studies showing
how Open Sourcing your products actually creates a larger eco-system and a more vibrant market. We need to think about the industry and not
individual company success. How do you make money if you’re giving the content away? What is the cost of free? Most publishers won’t consider
Open Source / Creative Commons licenses for some reason, yet those of us that do, are growing and thriving.
What does open source do to the publishing ecosystem, make it larger and stronger? Margaret Atwood’s brilliant depiction
of a part of the ecosystem, cautions publishing to neither accidentally or intentionally eliminate the author
(part of the ecosystem). When the industry defines and deploys the The Book of the Future, we need to make
sure the industry is healthy by making the ideas, technology and models Open Source in spirit. Obviously there
are components that will help companies remain unique, but let’s get our industry moving in a healthy direction, together!

Priced fairly

Creating more value than you capture is an essential ingredient for successful publishing in the future. Tim O’Reilly has
instilled this sort of thinking in all of us at O’Reilly. If you use this train of thought to guide your pricing decisions, you’ll
do well. There is something going on in our industry that needs to self correct. Average prices are going up, and average units
sold is going down. I understand this pricing strategy helps a publisher not lose money (fewer units at a higher price can actually drive a bottom
line profit). We need to think carefully about our pricing decisions when we figure how to price The Book of the Future. I
wonder which rocket-scientist decided to price a digital edition so much lower the the print analog. I find the digital edition more
useful, portable, and convenient. Yet somehow digital is valued less in our industry’s pricing strategy. Could it be
that some large retailers have artificially set the price low and don’t care about the ecosystem so they can sell less-than-adequate
devices instead of valuing the most important asset — the content. I don’t think we have to wait for a market correction, we are squarely in
the middle of it now. Self-publishing, direct sales strategies, the rise of small publishers, new open devices, piracy and broken DRM are all indications
that our pricing strategies as an industry are off-kilter. Create more value than you capture, think about your readers first, your ecosystem
second, and your P&L third.

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Comments: 10

  1. Hi…
    Everything you write makes a lot of sense. I’d like to add:

    Mix & Match // Differentiate

    Not all of the above concepts make sense for all kinds of books. My personal guess is that the book market will blur into a range of different reading experiences, e.g. a typical programmers’ handbook will preferably tie into the community and offer downloads, while a sci-fi novel might include movie artefacts. A collection of short stories would probably cater more to the distracted, etc.

  2. The answer is simple….


  3. OK, that does make sense when you think about is.


  4. I’d add: “Using Social Media to Congregate Niche Communities as Publishing Partners”–the idea being that it’s all about who has the eyeballs and no one can really claim to own a vertical (I’m really starting to hate that word), so niche communitites need to be linked like a co-op.

  5. What a great post! I’d say that differentiation for specific platforms is a (growing) must. A book on an e-reader is something else then a book on an iPad (or other tablet) and even more then a physical book. So besides creating in all formats, I’d say that every format should be used in the best possible way (from early on, so no late add-ons that don’t make sense to the reader).

    Another thing I believe highly in, is the social aspect. Overhere (Netherlands) you see that Twitter is used by TV-viewers when they’re watching a show (and can discuss it at the same time with all their ‘friends’). What about taking the old community/book club factor to a whole new level and integrate it into the book itself? Let readers discuss the content of the book IN the book. If you take that to another level, you could let readers add additional content (especially in non-fiction) to the book. Let the crowd make it better, richer and deeper.

  6. EBooks are notoriously weak in indexing, surprizing, given that computers are exceptionally good at it. Consider the cookbook. Finding a recipe for tomato soup is a snap with a physical book, but a real challenge with the current genrration of eReaders. So the future book must, in my view, have vastly improved search and indexing capabilities.

  7. Just as a photograph has a special place in visual image media separate from motion pictures, the book will retain its value for its unique qualities.

    So the question to ask is: What is valuable about the book experience that is not available in another format? After that is answered, the next question is to ask which technologies enhance the book and which do not?

    As another responder has mentioned, the technology applied depends on the content and type of book, but may also interestingly vary with the type of reader. Some readers will want to maintain the linear immersive reading experience while others welcome signposts along the way such as notes or in this case links. We can think about books that have had notes out to the side and research papers that have footnotes as early example of external linking.

    The ultimate Book of the Future, or rather the software to produce such a book, will then be a flexible format which will guide writers to enhance different books differently(by subject, fiction vs non-fiction, etc.) and then further revised for different types of readers.

    The Future is a multi-chanelled experience that will continue to tailor itself to how each of us connects with the world. Books will be no exception.

    Mollie Mossman, CPA, CMA, MBA is COO and CFO of Future World Corporation – an international internet services company; and is also President of Mossman Commercial Real Estate based near the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

  8. Damian Serrano Thode

    Hi Mike, I liked very much your article. Trying to define the book of the future can be a tough job, but I find your move quite interesting and I agree with almost all your points of view.

    My place of disagreement is with your comments about the pricing of the digital editions. If the product you are buying is just the PDF/EPUB/whatever of the same paperback or hardcover title, of course it needs to be way under the price of any of these two, just because you are saving productions costs not having to release a physical book. And you are saving not only on raw materials, but in the storage and distribution chain too, because there is no physical product to deliver; all the major booksellers already have a website with all their products listed that let you buy online physical products, so the addition of a digital good that can be readily downloaded after the purchase is almost zero-cost for the seller.

    It would be different if the digital edition would include all the extras you mentioned like updates, additional media, and all that, but, it all should be weighed in with the reduction in raw materials, and I am more of the opinion that a cheaper price can attract more customers than a more expensive price tag, unless you are oriented towards an exclusive market, of course.

    All in all, I found your article very interesting and gives a glimpse of the path to follow towards the book of the future.

  9. A good article and good comments !

    Traditional books are just one choice of the carriers of content, of course it’s wonderful to have more diversified possibilities to deliver the content and make interactions between our brains happen, this is the real purpose, isn’t it ?

    Just like to stress one point that pricing does matter. We could imagine that maybe in some ways authors don’t need to make their living by selling their content.

  10. What is the future of the book in the iPad era? We are at a unique meeting point for all things digital & analogue. Right now is a very exciting time to be involved with storytelling.