Change in Publishing: (not really) answers to (not really) questions. Writers, insiders and publishers discuss freely about 5 popular tags. Prev: Kassia Krozser, _Jacob Appel, Thierry Crouzet. Follow us: RSS | Twitter | Facebook_
At the risk of stating the obvious, the eBook really is more wonderful than any of us can yet fully imagine, and for a lot of reasons.
At the moment the popular notion of the eBook is that it's a digital rendition of the text-centric print book. The smart thing to do is to indeed translate paper books into digital form to meet burgeoning demand. "Don't just reprint - ePrint." It's particularly exciting to me that the illustrated, media rich books that have had to sit out the revolution can now be rendered into fixed layout formats like those supported by Apple's iBooks.
More broadly, when you consider the defining differences between eBooks and print books, you begin to get at the real power of the format. For example, though you can go overboard with anything, the superior economics of a digital release with perpetual access and no inventory risk or returns changes the book P&L and therefore can change the business of publishing in fundamental ways.
Add to this the decentralization of design, editorial, and production processes, and the costs of originating new books can drop even further as the range of titles increases. Just as narrowcasting and pay-per-view transformed the formerly top-down, hierarchical media business, there will be more books made available to a growing long tail market. So there's a great opportunity both in enabling such forms of distributed design and production of "digital first" books, and in bringing "digital first" books to market. And everyone can play: both large publishers, with editorial, design, and marketing talents and access to capital, and small publishers or indies with just their talent and the drive to make great books.
The digital premise makes it possible for books to adopt some of the remarkable characteristics of contemporary software development. A software startup today can deliver an app to a global marketplace more quickly and economically than at any time in history. Cloud services like Amazon's EC2 have eliminated the massive upfront costs of hosted applications (I still wince about those seven figure checks I once signed for Sun equipment in the 90s), and the availability of development frameworks and both content and service APIs (application programming interfaces) have made it possible for a few talented people to cook up and deliver a valuable service to millions of users, from a shared apartment.
These same benefits are emerging for book publishing. For example, PressBooks is "an open source book publishing platform that makes it easy to collaborate with an editorial team to generate clean, well-formatted books in multiple output formats." Collaborative workflow to produce quality product will result in books we might not have otherwise seen, and these can piped through to retailers with global presence almost immediately. We're building out the same kind of thing for fixed layout and next generation books, connecting creators and production people with one another and with templated layouts, high-level authoring tools, motion graphics and a/v techniques, and code to support new reading experiences.
The first content APIs are also emerging. For example, see the Plug & Play API from Pearson and DK, providing programmatic access to vast storehouse of quality content (initially for the Eyewitness Travel Guides). It's a smart and inevitable initiative, likely to be the first of many.
And yes, let's shout out 40k for its smart, leapfrogging publishing model, delivering quality books from both emerging and brand name authors to global markets simultaneously, in multiple languages.
Things that are effectively impossible to do in print are the true harbingers of the future of publishing.
What's most exciting is the potential for a new cultural flowering that the decentralized means of book production plus instantaneous global distribution makes possible. We're seeing it in our world. First an indie publisher brings us a line of books for conversion to fixed layout format. Then they make the leap to digital first. The next wave is already arriving: digital origination, with print if and when it makes market sense. Indies can move fast and make big things happen like never before.
They'll likely become more responsive to demand, particularly for digital first books. It's worth noting that if the market dynamics in other media forms that have gone digital earlier are a guide, a new class of aggregators will arise. Some will be mechanical combines. But I think it's likely those that combine an M&A business model with crisp editorial viewpoints will best be able to build enduring businesses and publishing brands that are meaningful to readers.
Digital first books will drive innovation, from the means of production to the nature and experience of the product itself. At the moment, app makers, with unfettered access to the native capabilities of the iPad, Nook, and other tablets or mobile devices, can conjure up almost anything. But as EPUB 3 begins to take hold, and platform providers broaden the creative palette, unforeseen aesthetic experiences will inevitably arrive in the bookstore and find or create readerships. Who thought hundreds of thousands of people might be interested in the periodic table? We can expect to see the "Elements Effect" in app-like eBooks built upon publishing standards, instead of upon proprietary code owned by app developers. Again, the dynamics of software development favor standards-based implementations and recombinable components drawn from many sources, and publishers of standards-based next generation eBooks will enjoy this advantage.
But despite the prospect of connected, geo-located, media rich, interactive, auto-curated, data-driven, socially connected, self-organizing books in the cloud, etc. etc., some of them silly, some of them not, I do think there is something essential that defines a book. Something in its structure we can still now and will always love: the book is a considered, consciously crafted artifact, discrete in the experience it delivers, received in a linear fashion that to my mind recapitulates the transit of day into night, summer into winter, birth to death with a beginning, middle, and end, like any other living thing. Like us, in fact. If you accept this definition, you can see why one can't simply slap covers on a curated social stream, website, or game and call it a book. A book, for all the innovation to come, will still be a book.