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We're in the midst of a restructuring of the publishing universe (don't panic)

Hugh McGuire says the disruption publishing has endured is a mere hint of what's to come.

A new book released this week called “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto,” by Hugh McGuire (@hughmcguire) and Brian O’Leary (@brianoleary), examines the future of book publishing from an advanced perspective. Beyond pricing and delivery mechanisms, beyond taking print and displaying it on a screen, the authors look at the digital transformation as more than a change in format — as stated in the book’s introduction:

The move to digital is not just a format shift, but a fundamental restructuring of the universe of publishing. This restructuring will touch every part of a publishing enterprise — or at least most publishing enterprises. Shifting to digital formats is ‘part one’ of this changing universe; ‘part two’ is what happens once everything is digital. This is the big, exciting unknown.

I reached out to the book’s co-author Hugh McGuire to examine some of the elements at play in the future of publishing and in the “exciting unknown” of doing things with books that have never before been possible. Our interview follows.

What’s the story behind “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto”?

HughMcGuire.jpgHugh McGuire: I’d been working on building PressBooks.com — a digital book production tool designed for publishers — and I wanted to get a real sense of how it worked, hands on. How better than to manage a real publishing project, working with a real publisher, from beginning to end, using PressBooks?

Of course, it made sense to make it a book about the future of books and publishing. So much ink is spilled about that topic, but we wanted to get away from the abstract and right down to the nitty-gritty. We wanted to produce something that would be a handbook you could give to someone starting a publishing house today.

I talked to my friend Brian O’Leary about co-editing with me, and he was on board. With that, I pitched it to Joe Wikert at O’Reilly — he loved the idea, and off we went.

It’s been a bit of a challenge, producing a book while simultaneously building the book production tool on which the book is produced, but we’ve managed … if a month or two late.

This is a broad question, but what are the major ways digital is changing publishing?

Hugh McGuire: It’s more like in what ways isn’t digital changing publishing? First, we very quickly dispatched of the pre-Kindle, pre-iPad question of, “Will people read books on screens?” Yes, and the growth curves are spectacular. The publishing world has, in a pretty orderly way, adapted to this change — with digital files now slotting alongside print books in the distribution chain. I think is this just the start, however.

The publishing world has managed the “digital-conversion disruption” pretty well. Publishers make ebooks now as a matter of course, and consumers buy them and read them on a multitude of devices.

What we as an industry haven’t managed yet is the “digital-native disruption.” What happens when all new books are ebooks, and the majority of books are read on digital devices, most of which are connected to the Internet? This brings with it so many new expectations from consumers, and I think this is where the real disruption in the market will come.

The kinds of disruption there include: speed of the publishing process, reader engagement with content, linking in and out of books, layers of context added to books, and the webification of books. I think the transitions we’ve seen in the past three years will pale in comparison to what’s going to happen to publishing in the next three years.

Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto — Through this collection of essays from publishing thought leaders and practitioners, you’ll become familiar with a wide range of developments occurring in the wake of the digital book shakeup.

Which digital tools should publishers focus on?

Hugh McGuire: Publishing is such a strange, conservative business, and I think there is a real hesitancy to invest heavily early on until there is real clarity on what the long-term standards will be. But EPUB is based on HTML, and I think whatever happens, HTML will be with us for the long haul.

So, tools I think publishers need to start working with:

These are the keys to having a successful publishing company that is future-proofed as best as it can be.

Why is metadata important to digital publishing?

Hugh McGuire: Physical bookstores provide a range of crucial services beyond being a place where you can buy books. Stores offer selection, curation, and recommendation. The digital book retail world is very different because it offers nearly unlimited selection. While retailers like Amazon spend a fair bit of energy trying to recommend titles to readers, the task of sifting through and finding books is increasingly left to consumers.

So, having good metadata — which really should be renamed “information about a book” so it’s less intimidating — means providing information that will: A) ensure that people looking for your book, or for the kind of content in your book, will find it; and B) help potential buyers of your book decide they want to buy it.

On the web, companies spend lots of time making sure their sites are search engine optimized, so that people looking for those websites (or the information on them) will find them. Attaching good metadata to a book is much like search engine optimization — it’s the mechanism you use to make sure your book gets found by the people looking for it.

What will the publishing landscape look like in five years?

Hugh McGuire: In five years:

  • Print is a marginal part of the trade business.
  • There’s a huge increase in the number of small publishers of all stripes.
  • There’s a massive increase in the number of books on the market.
  • The Big Six publishers will consolidate to become the Big Two or Three.
  • Most writers will continue to have a hard time making a living as writers.
  • Good/successful publishers will be those that provide good APIs to their books.
  • All books will be expected to be connected to the web, allowing linking in and out, and contextual layers of commentary, etc. (Will this be driven by publishers or retailers? To date, retailers have lead the way.)
  • The distinction between what you can do with an ebook and what you can do with a website will disappear (and it will seem strange that it ever existed).
  • While books will become more webby, the web will also become more bookish, accommodating more book-like structures in evolving HTML standards.

What’s the publishing schedule for “Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto”?

Hugh McGuire: The book comes in three parts:

  1. Out now: “Part 1: The Setup” — This addresses what’s happening right now in publishing.
  2. Out sometime before Christmas: “Part 2: The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?” — Given the technology we currently have, what can we expect to see happening with books going forward?
  3. Out in early 2012: “Part 3: The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge” — Case studies of real publishing projects, technologies, and enterprises working right now at the bleeding edge.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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  • Anonymous

    What does API stand for?

  • Mads
  • Tom Young

    Without reading the book, it is hard to know, but it seems that the authors may have been focused a bit too much on the technologies involved and the publishing business itself and too little on what their customers are going to want to do with e-books: 1) recommend and lend to friends and family; 2)share passages with them; 3)discuss, annotate, reference, markup, correct errata, etc., 4)catalogue; 5)mine multiple books for info.

    Understanding their customers will be more key to publishers’ survibility than their APIs.

  • http://pressbooks.com Hugh McGuire

    Hi Tom,

    The issues you raise are dealt with mainly in Brian O’Leary’s chapter “Context (not Container)”:
    http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/context-not-container

    and Liza Daly’s chapter, “What We Can Do with Books”:
    http://book.pressbooks.com/chapter/what-we-can-do-with-books-liza-daly