Self-publishers will be the publishers of the future

Tim O'Reilly on self-publishing and the cycles of democratization via technology.

Tim O’Reilly opened the TOC conference in New York a couple weeks ago with some words of optimism for the publishing industry, noting that copyright common sense is gaining momentum and that our fears of the future are abating. “The fear that everybody had that the new thing was going to be a bad thing is going away,” he said. (You can watch O’Reilly’s keynote on YouTube.)

I had the opportunity to sit down with O’Reilly to talk about the bright future of publishing — a future in which he said self-publishing is going to play a major role:

“There’s no question in my mind that self-publishing is the wave of the future, with one big caveat: self-publishers will become publishers. You know, everybody sees the beginnings of a new democratization via technology. People take advantage of it, they get good at what they do, then they start to extend their services to others.

“Look at my own history. My company, O’Reilly Media, was the product of the desktop publishing revolution, which democratized the tools of print publishing in a lot of ways. I was a self-published author, I built a company, I started publishing books for other people — you know all of our early books were written by our employees. Only later did we start to bring in outsiders and become a more traditional publisher.

“You figure out things that are hard to do. We figured out how to produce better looking books, we figured out how to get them into the market, and we built distribution — and it was easier for a lot of people who just wanted to write to use us … I watched that happen again when the web came along. In the beginning, ‘Wow, anybody can be a web publisher, anybody can have their own printing press,’ but before long, people were paying to get listings on websites. It happened again with blogging: ‘Wow, everybody can have their own blog,’ and then before long people were writing for The Huffington Post or Tech Crunch or whatever instead of putting up their own blog because there is a natural need to aggregate attention, and some people get better at it.

…I think we’ll literally see people who get really good at writing — some of them will say, ‘Wow, I don’t want to do all that other BS,’ but some of them will say, ‘Wow, I’m good at all that other BS and I can actually extend my efforts by doing all the parts that other people don’t want to do.’ That’s what I do; I don’t write books anymore, but I publish books for other people. It gave me more leverage and greater success, and I think in a similar way, the world goes in cycles. So, yes, self-publishing is probably the most important thing to be paying attention to right now in publishing, but the cycle will repeat.” (At the 0:48 mark.)

O’Reilly also talked about the cross-media star — those who engage audiences through a variety of mediums — becoming the backbone of the industry, and how the book as a user interface has and will continue to change. You can watch O’Reilly’s full interview in the following video:

All keynotes and video interviews from TOC NY 2013 can be found on the TOC 2013 YouTube playlist.

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