ENTRIES TAGGED "publishing"
Society cannot afford to lose its distributed knowledge backup system
Knowledge cannot progress unless it is aware of its past: a knowledge-seeker must reference the works of previous generations. Literary scholars return to manuscripts, musicians to partitions, artists to museums…
The continued availability of reference works underpins our entire research system. It has become so ingrained in our methods that it barely registers on our list of values to uphold. Yet, that very availability has dissolved into a mirage, to surprisingly little protest.
... or why I believe in a bright future for ebook subscription
During the 2013 edition of the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in New York City, I will be participating in a panel that has been called ‘The Elusive Netflix of eBooks‘. The title implies the notion that a subscription service for ebooks has not fully worked yet. While it is true there is no 500-pound gorilla selling subscriptions yet, my point of view as someone behind one of the companies offering such a service, is that this is just part of the process. A process that is just taking the right steps in the right direction.
Let me explain what I mean by going through four main stages, loosely taken from what any innovative product adoption lifecycle typically looks like.
Customers only care about their needs, not your business problems
This article contains my personal views, not those of my employer Lonely Planet.
The challenge the publishing industry faces today is complex. Against centuries of industry inertia and decades of business momentum, the job of transforming publishing is demanding to say the least. The healthy and long-lasting business model we once had is still funding emerging digital models but simultaneously holding them back.
Why publishers can and should encourage men to read fiction
Yesterday we saw some friends and I gave the female half of the couple a bag stuffed with books. Her husband looked downcast and said “Don’t you have any books for me, Bethanne?”
I explained to him that I did not–I receive fewer nonfiction books and pitches these days because I tend to write about and talk up fiction, although that could change any day depending on what project I’m working on at the time. His disappointment, however, sparked a dinner conversation about why men tend to choose nonfiction over fiction–especially because on of the books we discussed was Midnight in Peking, and our friend’s comment was “It was so good; it read like a novel!”
The connections between readers and potential readers matter most
I spoke at the “Frankfurt Digital Night” at this year’s Frankfurt Book fair, making essentially three points (see slides embedded below): first, publishing requires – and has always required – a commitment to creating and courting communities of readers. Second, there are new digital tools emerging for creating and courting these communities. Third, in this context, openness in terms of APIs is becoming a feature.
How did you manage during Sandy?
We hope you are warm and safe with electricity and actually dry walls. It’s been one heck of a week! Yet publishing continued apace on the East Coast of the United States even as Sandy raged, with content providers of all stripes holing up in bars, cafes, bedrooms, and other unusual spots to meet deadline.
Investors and publishers can benefit from a pool of innovation.
Last June, over beer (generally a good place to start), I had a great conversation with entrepreneur Hugh McGuire about how startups are funded in publishing. There was a lot to discuss, a little to celebrate, a bit to complain about, and one fact that we arrived at beyond everything else. It’s a challenge to raise money for publishing ventures.
Sure, raising funding is always difficult, but publishing presents a particular challenge. Publishing is “old media,” and it’s new to the technology game (especially in terms of startups focused on the consumer web). There isn’t a real precedent of cooperation between technology and publishing. And that makes it a challenge to find money to build new things.
Some of the issues come straight out of the investor community:
- Most investors are unfamiliar with publishing. Books seem traditional. I can’t tell you how many investors put their personal feelings into the equation and say things like, “Well, my spouse is in a book club, but I don’t read much so I’m probably not a good fit.” Ouch. Although personal experience figures in somewhat, their total unfamiliarity with the market stops them cold before we’ve even started.
- Concerns about returns on investment. It’s true, we haven’t seen the huge acquisitions like Instagram. Or Yammer. Yet. Publishing is worth billions – it has what everyone wants: content. So maybe the book industry doesn’t seem like a high growth market. One thing is certain, though, as the industry goes digital, those publishing billions are going to be spent on something. Clear exits will materialize.
- There’s always the What-If-Google-Does-It argument. To be fair, every startup gets the Google, Amazon, Apple question, which goes something like “What will you do if (all together now), Amazon, Apple, or Google does it?” A few weeks ago I heard Henrik Werdelin of Prehype give a presentation at a TOC event about innovation and he chuckled about this specific question. He pointed out that at this point Google can pretty much build anything anyone can invent. That shouldn’t be your yardstick. The better question is, are the founders smart enough to offer good strategy, a unique experience, or a new market? If so, Google is much more likely to buy the company once the idea proves out, rather than build every single idea in the world. In short, that question is not a question.
True, there are some people who get investment while working on publishing startups. The list above can be overcome if you’ve worked with those investors before. Or if you’re an Ivy-League ex-Googler that has had a successful exit, you have qualifications that will work in your favor. But that is a frightfully small portion of the people with boots on the ground, developing cool ideas. What about the technically savvy people who don’t meet those criteria (most of the people I know innovating in publishing today)? If they’re starting up in Amercia, those people go out and crash head-first into the arguments listed above, then spend a few years toiling in bootstrapped obscurity.
People have been thinking about this for awhile
Last October Brian O’Leary gave a stirring talk, “The Opportunity in Abundance,” at the Internet Archive’s Books in Browsers conference (transcribed here). He put forth a bold vision of collaboration among publishers, each contributing to support innovation and enjoy in its technical fruits. He talked about goals – that survival for publishing is not a “goal” in itself, for example – and that innovation is one of the important pillars of publishing health. He used an example from the gas industry to illustrate how it pooled resources to innovate. He said:
I called the prospect of people not engaging with our content the publishing manifestation of a super-threat. I’d argue (pretty strongly) that it represents a super-threat not just to publishing, but to the way we function as a country, an economy and as a part of a world order. We have a responsibility to address this threat, not just so that we can make money, but because we’re the ones with the ability to solve it.
Other industries facing an uncertain future have banded together to form and fund superstructures. The Gas Research Institute, for example, was authorized in 1976, at a time when the natural gas industry was highly fragmented among producers, wholesalers and distributors. The latter often held a local monopoly.
By 1981, GRI was spending $68.5 million on research and a total of $80.5 million on oversight and R&D. This represented about 0.2% of the wellhead price of gas that year, valued at the time at a bit more than $38 billion.
GRI undertook research and development in four areas…Funding, drawn from a surcharge on sales as well as some government grants, accelerated to something north of $100 million in the mid-1980s.
If you look across all of publishing in the United States, it’s about a $40 billion business. Imagine what we could do if we could create and sustain an organization with $80 million a year in funding. It’s also likely that an industry-wide commitment to addressing engagement would garner the external funding that most parties have been understandably reluctant to spend on narrower causes.
A good point. A great plan. If CourseSmart and Bookish show us that publishers can partner, then why not partner in innovation? Brian gives a number of concrete suggestions for areas to focus on. I’ve been mulling this over ever since he gave this presentation. Despite his guidelines and recommendations, it hasn’t happened yet. But there’s a way this idea fits neatly into startupland.
The publishing incubator
A similar solution already exists in the tech world: the incubator. If you’re not familiar with it, technology incubators accept applications from startups in small batches. If accepted, the startup gets between $20,000 – $100,000 (in exchange for around 5% equity), along with three months of office space, mentors, a chance to demo for investors, and a lot of help. Investors get early access to cutting-edge technology. Corporations are encouraged to come in and meet the startups at any point along the way.
Many incubators are industry-specific. For example, there are four healthcare incubators in NYC alone, churning out fresh startups and new technology multiple times a year. Imagine the amount of healthcare innovation going on right now. Education does this too. Incubator ImagineK12 is one of many education-focused incubators from across the country – with a group of startups that has raised $10M post-graduation. And Turner Broadcasting just launched an incubator in NYC called Media Camp. Since the products integrate with broadcast media, there is a major focus on mentorship from executives in the field, and a lot of discussion about how to work with big media conglomerates. Sounds a lot like what we need in publishing. Even publishing expert Craig Mod recently wrote about how he is struggling with how to distribute his TechFellow money to startups.
Granted, there is some remarkable internal R&D: NYTimes Labs and The Washington Post Labs are doing good things. Those are commendable efforts. But those teams are usually small, and since they’re internal they don’t have the massive variation we see in incubators. One company isn’t going to move the needle for an entire industry in that way.
We need an incubator for publishing technology. We need a group of investors and publishers that want to benefit from a pool of innovation, and encourage it grow. With this, publishers would contribute to and sponsor events, perhaps even influence the direction of future partners. Investors would raise the fund, and choose the most viable startups. Innovation and disruption might actually find a common ground, as new technologies could drive reading adoption which drive sales (an argument technology writer Paul Carr has made before). We need to bridge publishing and technology, and this gets us there.
This should exist now. I’ve been working on publishing startups for five years and I have yet to see it. Moreover, with so many publishers on the East Coast, New York City is the place to do it. New York has a healthy startup industry, access to publishers and publishing conferences, mentors and experts. My question is, who’s going to do something about it? Who’s with me?
A new approach to publishing for a classic title.
By Eric Meyer, Author and Simon St.Laurent, Editor
O’Reilly is taking a new approach to publishing one of its classics, CSS: The Definitive Guide. The Fourth Edition will arrive in bookstores sometime soon, but long before then you’ll be able to buy sections of the book on more tightly-focused topics. The first three just came out:
We expect that this will work better for readers, the author, and the publisher, but the reasons are all different even though they interlock.
Some readers tell us (O’Reilly) that they want the latest and greatest and don’t worry as much about quality. Some readers tell us that they want every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. Serialization lets us achieve both of those goals. The content comes out much faster, but it’s already been copyedited, reviewed, and illustrated. There may be updates to come if the content changes or errata (inevitably) turns up, but O’Reilly has polished each piece before its release. It may not yet be perfect, but it should be comparable to our usual finished books.
CSS: The Definitive Guide is large and getting larger as CSS grows. The writing process will take a long time, and in the traditional model content written at the beginning might wait a year or more to see customers. This new approach gets content out, and makes it much easier to fix things when content goes out of date.
With serialization, readers get much faster access to the most recent information, and customers who buy the ebooks will also get updates if the pieces they buy change. They can also buy the pieces secure in the knowledge that if they want to buy the whole thing later, O’Reilly will make sure they don’t lose their early investment: we’ll make sure that the price paid for the pieces becomes a discount on the larger work for readers who want the whole thing eventually.
You can also pick which pieces you want. Some people want huge definitive books. Others want just the pieces that fit their particular focus. If you only need three pieces of CSS: The Definitive Guide, you’l be able to buy just those three pieces. Read more…