O’Reilly just announced a new API and an associated contest. The technical details and the competition are spelled out in separate posts — and we hope you’ll check those out — but the bigger ideas behind publishing-centric APIs deserve mention as well. That’s the point of this piece. Below we look at three areas that influenced our own thinking on APIs.
Benefit 1: Address the discovery problem
Whether you’re discussing ebooks, music, movies, television shows or even run-of-the-mill blog posts, the “discovery problem” is the tie that binds digital content. All that great stuff isn’t worth much if people can’t find it.
The companies that can cut through this Gordian Knot will do very well for themselves. That’s well documented. But the lure of riches and Google-esque clout have still not resulted in a truly useful discovery engine for digital material. Heck, even an undeniable financial success like Apple’s App Store is plagued by this conundrum.
An API can help. It won’t fix the discovery problem, but disseminating content in a structured and open manner is an important first step.
Locking material within a website, an ebook, or any other digital container means potential customers must be exposed to that specific website or ebook or container. And what are the chances of that? There’s this odd notion that customers will visit a website to dig through an arbitrary taxonomy in search of your brilliant content. Yet, if you think of your own browsing habits, you’ll realize that scenario almost never plays out. Categories are for content management systems, not customers.
Releasing an API allows content to flow naturally through the tributaries of the Internet. It works with user behavior, which increases the potential for exposure. If the dots connect — and your content is useful/brilliant/entertaining — exposure leads to attention and attention leads to conversion.
Benefit 2: A license to experiment
We’re not at the point where access to an API is assumed. That will change in time, but for now the technical obscurity of an API is actually an asset. An API is permission to experiment.
For publishers, an API offers a way to run live tests of new models: a metadata-only API, a full-text API, perhaps even an API with promotional or advertising hooks. You can use the API as the basis for a hack day challenge (developers and editors, together at last). Or, you could pull a Google and set aside time for technically-minded employees to construct their own applications around the APIs.
The opportunities are considerable, but it’s important to realize that how you experiment is secondary to the action of conducting the experiments. An important shift occurs when you can explore without preconceived notions. An API, because it’s so different from what publishers typically produce, creates an environment where those old notions don’t apply.
Benefit 3: Intentional unintentional consequences
When Google released its Maps tool — and later, the Maps APIs — could anyone have anticipated the vibrant ecosystem it catalyzed? Or look at Twitter: API access gave birth to thousands of third-party apps, which transformed Twitter into a dominant communication platform. APIs encourage unintentional consequences like these. They’re fuel for creativity.
It’s easy for publishers to self-select out of API development because a publisher has little in common with Google or Twitter. But that’s the wrong way to look at it. An API isn’t about mimicking big Internet companies. Rather, it’s a way to inject new ideas into an organization without reorganizing the company or launching an entirely new business.
The people who build products around an API see your content in ways that would never occur to you. These folks aren’t concerned with your tradition or your goals. They care about their own ideas and their own products.
In a serendipitous twist, that’s precisely the type of thinking publishers need. Old techniques don’t work anymore and the days of bolting heavy traditional methods onto agile digital frames are drawing to a close. An API is an elegant and mutually beneficial solution that taps into the boundary-free perspectives needed during this period of reinvention.
As Joe Wikert aptly put it:
I can’t help but think that all these years we’ve been selling plastic children’s toys like skyscrapers and cars, and the pieces were all glued together so customers could only use them the way we intended them to be used. Now we’ve decided to break the pieces into their component parts and let customers build whatever they want. It’s like LEGOS for publishing!
These are just a few of the bigger implications of APIs. If you see other applications and opportunities, please weigh in through the comments.