Publishing can be the engine of the engagement economy

Brian O'Leary on the opportunities and obstacles of content abundance.

Brian O’Leary (@brianoleary), founder of Magellan Media, says the roles of publishers and editors are changing — where the role used to be deciding what would get published, now it’s figuring out how what is published will be found.

In the following interview, O’Leary addresses issues of — and solutions for — content abundance from the viewpoint of publishers as well as consumers. He argues that the increasing numbers of non-readers, people who don’t engage with content, “represent a threat not just to publishing, but to the way we function as a country, an economy and as a part of a world order.” It is the responsibility of the publishing industry, O’Leary says, to reposition itself as the “engine of the engagement economy.”

O’Leary will expand on these ideas at Mini TOC Austin, just before SXSW.

Our interview follows.

How do you define “content abundance”?

BrianOlearyMug.pngBrian O’Leary: The traditional barriers to getting a book published are all but gone. As low- or no-cost
authoring, repository and distribution tools have become widely available, the number of
books published each year has skyrocketed. That’s evidence of abundance.

But it’s broader than just having a lot more books. When I wrote “Context first,” I was
trying to figure out what would happen if we were no longer constrained by the physical
object — what I came to call “the container.”

It’s not surprising to see that, freed from physical limitations, we would no longer have
to write to length. We could link, expand and annotate. We could also go the other way,
writing something whose length fell between a magazine article and a book, as Byliner
and The Atavist support.

Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg who passed away last September, thought
that portable petabyte storage capable of holding a billion ebooks would be readily
accessible to a middle-class reader by 2021. Even today’s devices let us hold a lifetime
of reading in our hands.

Technology drives this. 2011 marked the 40th anniversary for not just Project Gutenberg,
but also the introduction of the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004. In the last four
decades, the number of transistors we can squeeze on a chip has grown from 2,300 to 3.1
billion, while clock speeds have increased 3,700-fold.

Much as abundance is the precursor to the development of context, capacity is the
precursor to abundance. Moore’s law got us to where we are, and while growth in digital
capacity may slow, it is not going to stop. As Sheila Bounford has said, this capacity is
rewriting the rules of the publishing supply chain.

See Brian O’Leary’s presentation “Context first: A unified field theory of publishing” below.

What are some of the major challenges for publishers in this age of content abundance?

Brian O’Leary: We used to be in the business of deciding what would be published. The new role for
editors and publishers is figuring out how what we publish will be found.

I think that means publishers have to do at least four things:

  1. Our content has to be made open, accessible and interoperable.
  2. We need to use context to promote discovery.
  3. We need to make broader use of our content.
  4. We can compete by providing readers with tools that draw upon context to help them
    manage abundance.

While most publishers now offer digital content, very few have adopted these ideas.

Content that is wrapped in platform-specific DRM serves only to strengthen the hold that platform owners have on publishers and readers. Metadata is inconsistently managed
and almost always maintained at the level of a title, denying most readers an opportunity
to better understand how a given text might be of interest or value.

We develop content for a single use, typically a printed book, and consider other formats,
even ebooks, as derived or secondary applications. This approach means that products
desired by niche markets — large-type and Braille editions, for example — are cost-
effective only for the biggest-selling titles.

There are a few examples of publishers doing good work helping readers manage
abundance — Safari Books is one — but the most compelling solutions these days are
found in platforms like Small Demons and ReadSocialAPI.

Publishers still treat this technology-driven part of the business as someone else’s
purview. I worry that this approach will cost them the market over time.

Mini TOC Austin — Being held March 9, 2012 (right before SXSW), O’Reilly Tools of Change presents Mini TOC Austin, a one-day event focusing on Austin’s thriving publishing, tech, and bookish-arts community.

Register to attend Mini TOC Austin

How about challenges for readers?

Brian O’Leary: Readers are like the rest of us: busy, inundated and distracted. Publishers can help them make sense of the world around them.

Honestly, though, I’m even more worried about non-readers. People who don’t engage
with our content represent a 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.

We live and work in a world in which we have a narrow window to influence or convince people to do what we want them to do. We talk about the quality, value and importance
of our work, and we view the act of publishing as validation. But the measure that matters most starts with how what we do is received.

So, I propose a far bigger, collective goal: Reposition publishing (which for me includes physical and digital forms of book, magazine and newspaper content) as
the engine of the engagement economy. To make that happen, we need to increase the expectations we place on ourselves and on our readers, along the way “architecting the
experience” of consumer interaction with our published works.

Tell me more about “the engine of the engagement economy” — what exactly does this mean and can you offer practical steps publishers can take to begin?

Brian O’Leary: Let’s talk about three examples: underserved markets, fan fiction and flexible formats.

Today, publishers do relatively little mainstream work for vision-impaired and low-
literacy populations. Large-type and Braille editions are limited to the more successful titles. Intermediaries are sometimes allowed to repurpose content, but the books are
released well after they have gone mainstream. That shrinks the potential market for
these works.

With respect to low-literacy readers, we in publishing sometimes act as if reading should be hard. At Contents magazine, Angela Colter described five things we can do to improve the accessibility of textual content:

  1. Make it easy to read
  2. Make it look easy to read
  3. Include only what’s important
  4. Be consistent
  5. Provide feedback

I think publishers are often not mindful of these requirements, and we diminish the total
reading audience as a result.

With respect to fan fiction, we sometimes forget as writers that we all started out as
readers (credit to Richard Nash and William Patry here). We build our own voices by
imitating others before striking off on our own.

Anna von Veh, whose company, Say Books, is publishing a fan-fiction writer, reached
back to Saul Bellow, who said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” If we want to
grow the reading market, we can help by giving readers a stake in the game.

There’s some tension, of course, in situations where homage and practice feels like
stealing. But even original books borrow from well-established writers and writing. The
concepts are seldom new. With fan-fiction, a rising tide can carry many boats.

Finally, we are still driven to think of book content as poured into a container. I would
like publishers to consider loosening the reins a bit. Think about crafts and cook books,
for example. Why can’t I take the digital versions of these products and sort them into
categories like “have done these,” “would like to try these” and “not for me”?

When we lock content down, we limit its utility. I understand the business concern with
losing control of content, but that’s a battle I think we can better fight with price and
utility, not widespread use of DRM.

How can publishers turn the challenges into opportunities?

Brian O’Leary: When I wrote “Context first,” I focused on what publishers could do to succeed in a
content-abundant universe. That’s what led me to talk about making content open,
discoverable, reusable and relevant for our audiences.

Since then, I’ve been kicking around what abundance means for our industry — not just
publishers, but also authors, agents, distributors, wholesalers, retailers, libraries and
others. Increasingly, I’ve come to feel that we need to find a way to all hang together, or
surely we will each hang separately.

Specifically, we need four things:

  1. We need goals, a redefinition of what publishing is and why it matters.
  2. We need rules, a set of principles that are based in fairness and recognize that we have to balance current requirements with some, perhaps many, future unknowns.
  3. We need feedback, a shared way to model new approaches, test assumptions and make decisions based in fact.
  4. We need a hook, a reason to collaborate.

If we pursue only individual initiatives, we will fail to solve the bigger problem
facing us: sustaining a population for whom knowledge and understanding underpin our

What’s the long-view on content abundance? How do you see it playing out over the next 10-15 years?

Brian O’Leary: I’m of two minds. The optimist in me sees this as a moment of reinvention. With so
many parts of the traditional publishing supply chain under attack, it makes immediate
and intuitive sense for authors, agents, publishers, wholesalers, retailers and libraries to
join together to rebuild the reading populace.

That’s a somewhat unnerving prospect. In an exchange that took place a few years ago,
Michael Hart predicted a reading-enabled future in which book prices plummet, literacy
and education rates soar and old power structures crumble in the wake of scientific,
industrial and humanitarian revolutions. That’s kind of cool if you’re
part of the proletariat, but it might be a bit unnerving if you’re an oligarch (or aspiring to
be one).

But I think the alternative is worse: The pessimist in me says that collective action of
the sort that we saw in the energy industry in the 1970s and 1980s will not take place in
publishing. Even though the energy business was as fragmented then as publishing is
now, we are unlikely to get the government to intervene this time.

No one really knows what will happen in a decade or more, but sticking with the
prevailing distribution-driven model for physical and digital objects will only get more
expensive, less predictable and, ultimately, less satisfying for the readers who remain.
I think we need to be in the content solutions business, with print being one of those
options. Otherwise, intermediaries and platforms will carry the day.

So, I favor the optimist. Initiatives like Bookserver and some foundation-funded projects
in the professional and scholarly space show that cooperation is possible. I’m hoping that
efforts like mine can also make it widespread.

This interview was edited and condensed.