What lies ahead: Publishing

Tim O'Reilly on the jobs of publishers and why ebooks represent an opportunity for a change in form.

Tim O’Reilly recently offered his thoughts and predictions for a variety of topics we cover regularly on Radar. I’ll be posting highlights from our conversation throughout the week. — Mac

How will ebooks change publishing?

Tim O'ReillyTim O’Reilly: Andrew Savikas, our VP of digital initiatives at O’Reilly, likes to make a distinction between “formats” and “forms.” A hardback, a paperback, an audiobook, and many an ebook simply represent different forms of the same work. New formats, on the other hand, represent deeper changes in how authors develop content and readers consume it. The graphic novel is a recent format innovation in the West (albeit one with deep antecedents), as are the cell phone novels that have become popular in Japan.

People think of ebooks as simply another format, but ebooks actually
represent an opportunity for a change in form. For example, you used to buy a printed atlas or a printed map, but now you have a dynamic, perpetually-updated, real-time map that shows you where you are. The old paper maps aren’t very useful anymore. Applications from Yelp to Foursquare can be seen as elaborations of the potential of the map in its electronic form.

Or look at Wikipedia. As an encyclopedia, it’s actually pretty close in form to what it replaced, but there are important layers of reinvention. A printed encyclopedia doesn’t have articles on breaking news; it can’t be a real-time encyclopedia in the way that Wikipedia now is. Notions about what an encyclopedia can do have changed.

Changes in form have significantly affected O’Reilly’s publishing business by providing new kinds of competition. Our bestsellers are now tutorial books. The old reference-based books have been cannibalized by the web and search. This is why we try to define Safari Books Online as a library of content that people can search across. Reference material now carries an expectation that it will be searchable. And our tutorial books are increasingly challenged by other forms of tutorial, such as screencasts and online video.

O’Reilly may appear to be in the same category as HarperCollins — we both put ink on paper and sell products through retailers — but in other ways we’re not even in the same business. HarperCollins publishes literary fiction, serious non-fiction, biographies, and other popular literature. We publish technical how-to and reference material. Their competitors include other forms of entertainment and erudition; ours include other forms of teaching and reference.

Does the definition of “publisher” need to expand?

Tim O’Reilly: Publishers think way too narrowly about what kind of business they are in, and as a result, are blind to how the competitive landscape is changing under their feet. If someone has roots in ink-on-paper, they are a publisher, but if they are web- or mobile-native, they are not. But this is wrong-headed! Put another way: Why would you think Zagat is a publisher but Yelp isn’t? They both perform similar jobs. Competition should be defined by the jobs publishers do for users.

That being said, curation and aggregation are among the core jobs of publishing, and it’s clear to me these jobs still need to be done. There is a real need for someone to winnow out the wheat from the chaff as more content becomes available online. (Of course, Google is also in the curation business, but they do it algorithmically.) Eventually, there will be new ways publishers get paid for doing these jobs, but there are also going to be new ways to do them.

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Does a focus on infrastructure block adaptation?

Tim O’Reilly: I gave a Publishing Point talk and someone in the audience asked how new publishing models could pay for “all this,” and they pointed around to the lovely room and by reference, the building we were in, the headquarters of a storied publishing company. It was as if maintaining what they already own is the heart of the problem. That’s like Digital Equipment Corporation asking, back when the PC era was just beginning, “Will the personal computer pay for all of this?”

HP and IBM figured out how to make the transition to the personal computer era. Digital didn’t. Now, Microsoft is struggling with the transition from the PC era to the web era. Could you imagine somebody at a Microsoft conference asking, “But will the web pay for all of this?” You would think that was ridiculous. In technology, we understand the reality of competition and what Schumpeter called the “creative destruction” of capitalism. Why is it when somebody asks that same question in the context of publishing it’s treated as a serious query?

How can publishers adapt to digital? What mindsets should they adopt?

Tim O’Reilly: Publishers, including O’Reilly, need to ask themselves: How can we make our content better online? How can we make it better through mobile?

In non-fiction, there are simple improvements to be made in the form of links — after all, what is a link but a better version of the footnote? There are also ways to add more content, in much the way that DVD publishers add deleted scenes, director commentary, and other extras to the original movie. Other times, “better” will be defined by making something smaller — at least from the user’s point of view. For example, Google has more data than any print atlas, but the user sees less. Consumption is defined by the user’s particular request: show me where I am now; show what’s around me; show me how to get from where I am to somewhere else. There’s a huge opportunity for books to be reconceived as database-backed applications that show you just what you need to know. Former computer-book publisher Mitch Waite now publishes a fabulous birder’s guide for the iPhone, iBird Pro, demonstrating the power of this model.

Books give people information, entertainment, and education. If publishers focus on how those three elements can be performed better online and through mobile, innovation and business models will follow. If we don’t innovate to do those jobs better for our customers, it’s only a matter of time before someone else steps in.

Next in this series: What lies ahead in net neutrality


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