How to create new reading experiences profitably

Concluding my summary of my recent presentation to a publishing industry group, begun here and continued here, we turn to the question of what to do to revitalize the publishing opportunity.

I wrote a lot about the idea of exploding the limitations of the book in the last installment. Getting beyond the covers. Turning from a distribution model to a reader-centric model. It’s simple to argue that change is needed and to say what needs changing. Here, I offer a few specific ideas about lines of research and development that I would like to see begun by publishers, who, if they wish to remain viable—let alone profitable—must undertake immediately. The change in book publishing will happen at a faster pace than the collapse of newspaper and music publishing did, making a collective effort at research and publication of the results for all to discuss and use, critical during the next 18 months. Think open sourcing the strategy, so that a thousand innovations can bloom.

Making books into e-books is not the challenge facing publishers and authors today. In fact, thinking in terms of merely translating text to a different display interface completely misses the problem of creating a new reading experience. Books have served well as, and will continue to be, containers for moving textual and visual information between places and across generations. They work. They won’t stop working. But when moving to a digital environment, books need to be conceived with an eye firmly set on the interactions that the text/content will inspire. Those interactions happen between the author and work, the reader and the work, the author and reader, among readers and between the work and various services, none of which exist today in e-books, that connect works to one another and readers in the community of one book with those in other book-worlds.

Just as with the Web, where value has emerged out of the connection of documents by publishers and readers—the Web is egalitarian in its connectivity, but still has some hierarchical features in its publishing technologies—books must be conceived of not just as a single work, but a collection of work (chapters, notes, illustrations, even video, if you’re thinking of a “vook“) that must be able to interact internally and with other works with which it can communicate over an IP network. This is not simply the use of social media within the book, though that’s a definite benefit, but making the book accessible for use as a medium of communication. Most communities emerge long after the initial idea that catalyzes them is first published.

These communications “hooks” revolve around traditional bibliographic practices, such as indexing and pagination for making references to a particular location in a book useful, as well as new functionality, such as building meta-books that combine the original text with readers’ notes and annotations, providing verification of texts’ authenticity and completeness, curation (in the sense that, if I buy a book today and invest of myself in it the resulting “version” of the book will be available to others as a public or private publication so that, for instance, I can leave a library to my kids and they can pass it along to their children) and preservation.

Think about how many versions of previously published books, going all the way back to Greek times, when books were sold on scrolls in stalls at Athens, have been lost. We treasure new discoveries of an author’s work. In a time of information abundance, however, we still dismiss all the other contributions that make a book a vital cultural artifact. Instead, we need to recognize that capturing the discussions around a book, providing access (with privacy intact) to the trails that readers have followed on their own or in discussions with others to new interpretations and uses for a text, and the myriad commentaries and marginalia that have made a book important to its readers is the new source of infinite value that can be provided as the experience we call “reading.” Tomorrow’s great literary discovery may not be an original work by a famous author, but a commentary or satire written by others in response to a book (as the many “…with sea monsters and vampires” books out there are beginning to demonstrate today). Community or, for lack of a better way of putting it, collaboration, is the source of emergent value in information. Without people talking about the ideas in a book, the book goes nowhere. This is why Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin‘s advice about giving away free e-books makes so much sense, up to a point. Just turning a free ebook into the sale of a paper book leaves so much uninvented value on the table that, frankly, readers will never realize to get if someone doesn’t roll the experience up into a useful service.

The interaction of all the different “versions” of a book is what publishers can facilitate for enhanced revenues. This could also be accomplished by virtually anyone with a budget necessary to support a large community. The fascinating thing about the networked world, of course, is that small communities are what thrive, some growing large, so that anyone could become a “publisher” by growing a small community into a large or multi-book community.

Publishers can, though they may not be needed to, provide the connectivity or, at least, the “switchboards” that connect books. The BookServer project recently announced by The Internet Archive takes only one of several necessary steps toward this vision, though it is an important one: If realized, it will provide searchable indices and access to purchase or borrow any book for consumption in paper or a digital device. That’s big. It’s a huge project, but it leaves out all the content and value added to books by the public, by authors who release new editions (which need to be connected, so that readers want to understand the changes made between editions), and, more widely, the cultural echoes of a work that enhance the enjoyment and importance attributed to a work.

What needs to exist beside the BookServer project is something I would describe as the Infinite Edition Project. This would build on the universal index of books, but add the following features:

  • Word and phrase-level search access to books, with pagination intact;
  • A universal pagination of a book based upon a definitive edition or editions, so that the books’ readers can connect through the text from different editions based on a curated mapping of the texts (this would yield one ISBN per book that, coupled with various nascent text indexing standards, could produce an index of a title across media);
  • Synchronization of bookmarks, notes and highlights across copies of a book;
  • A reader’s copy of each book that supported full annotation indexing, allowing any reader to markup and comment on any part of a book—the reader’s copy becomes another version of the definitive edition;
  • An authenticated sharing mechanism that blends reader’s copies of a book based on sharing permissions and, this is key, the ability to sell a text and the annotations separately, with the original author sharing value with annotators;
  • The ability to pass a book along to someone, including future generations—here, we see where a publisher could sell many copies of their books based on their promise to keep reader’s copies intact and available forever, or a lifetime;
  • An authentication protocol that validates the content of a book (or a reader’s copy), providing an “audit trail” for attribution of ideas—both authors and creative readers, who would be on a level playing field with authors in this scenario, would benefit, even if the rewards were just social capital and intellectual credit;
  • Finally, Infinite Edition, by providing a flourishing structure for author-reader and inter-generational collaboration, could be supported by a variety of business models.

One of the notions that everyone, readers and publishers included, have to get over is the idea of a universal format. Text these days is something you store but not something that is useful without metadata and application-layer services. Infinite Edition, as the illustration above shows, is a Web services-based concept that allows the text to move across devices and formats. It would include an API for synchronizing a reader’s copy of a book, as well as for publishers or authors to update or combine versions.

Done right, an Infinite Edition API would let a Kindle user share notes with a Nook user and with a community that was reading the book online; if, at some point, a new version of the book were to be printed, publishers could, with permission, augment the book with contributions of readers. Therein lies a defensible value-added service that, at the same time, is not designed to prevent access to books—it’s time to flip the whole notion of protecting texts on its head and talk about how to augment and extend texts. As I have written elsewhere over the years, this is a feature cryptographic technology is made to solve, but without the stupidity of DRM.

Granted, access to a book would still be on terms laid out by the seller (author, publisher or distributor, such as Amazon, which could sell the text with Kindle access included through its own secure access point to the Infinite Edition Web service) however, it would become an “open” useful document once in the owner’s hands. And all “owners” would be able to do much with their books, including share them and their annotations. Transactions would become a positive event, a way for readers to tap into added services around a book they enjoy.

Publishers must lead this charge, as I wrote last time, because distributors are not focused on the content of books, just the price. A smart publisher will not chase the latest format, instead she will emphasize the quality of the books offered to the market and the wealth of services those books make accessible to customers. This means many additive generations of development will be required of tool makers and device designers who want to capitalize on the functionality embedded in a well-indexed, socially enabled book. It will prevent the wasteful re-ripping of the same content into myriad formats in order to be merely accessible to different reader devices. And the publishers who do invent these services will find distributors as willing as ever to sell them, because a revived revenue model is attractive to everyone.

ePUB would be a fine foundation for an Infinite Edition project. So would plain text with solid pagination metadata. In the end, though, what the page is—paper or digital—will not matter as much as what is on the page. Losing sight of the value proposition in publishing, thinking that the packaging matters more than the content to be distributed, is what has nearly destroyed newspaper publishing. Content is king, but it is also coming from the masses and all those voices have individual value as great as the king. So, help pull these communities of thought and entertainment together to remain a vital contributor to your customers.

This raises the last challenge I presented during my talk. The entire world is moving to a market ideal of getting people what they want or need when they want or need it. Publishing is only one of many industries battling the complex strategic challenge of just-in-time composition of information or products for delivery to an empowered individual customer. This isn’t to say that it is any harder, nor any easier, to be a publisher today compared to say, a consumer electronics manufacturer or auto maker, only that the discipline to recognize what creates wonderful engaging experience is growing more important by the day.

As I intimated in the last posting, this presentation didn’t land me the job I was after. I came in second, which is a fine thing to do in such amazing times. Congratulations to Scott Lubeck, who was named today as executive director of the Book Industry Study Group. I have joined the BISG to be an activist member. I welcome contact from anyone wishing to discuss how the BISG or individual publishers can put these ideas into action, a little at a time or as a concerted effort to transform the marketplace.

About godsdog

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.
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  1. Pingback: Daily Digest for 2010-01-05 | RatcliffeBlog

  2. Publishers are too stuck in their current business models to create Infinite Books.
    There are no “smart” publishers; only soon to be out of business publishers.

  3. You say a system of “universal pagination” (canonical references to particular spans of text) will lead “yield one ISBN per book that, coupled with various nascent text indexing standards, could produce an index of a title across media”. I think you mean that such universal pagination would rely on a work identifier like an ISTC, xISBN, or thingISBN, rather than an edition identifier like a true ISBN. In any case, assuming each edition uses the canonical numbering scheme, we could indeed generate concordances more easily than in the past.

    • Absolutely — ISTC in particular is the best mechanism for a combined ISBN/part identification of a work. It was part of my presentation in New York, but I wanted to avoid the details for this article, so that the bigger ideas could stand on their own. There are a variety of standards and protocols that could be combined to produce a workable system.

  4. Pingback: La Feuille » Archive du blog » Passer d’un modèle centré sur la distribution à un modèle centré sur le lecteur ?

  5. I’m really happy to come upon this presentation because it echoes my thinking on where books and reading may (will?) go in the future.
    Just as the move from a text editor to a heavily featured word processor like MS-Word, or the move from a simple raster paint program to a 3D vector tool like AutoCAD represent great leaps forward in capability and user experience, they also encounter the burdens of complexity, longer learning curves, bloated feature sets and user resistance.
    A book is, usually, a story. This obvious for a novel, but for non-fiction, it is still true. A calculus text has a progression of ideas. The thread of a discussion is not just a history of posts but also should have a sequential logical progression that is of value to the reader. Okay maybe the yellow pages has no story but how about the Zagat guides?
    I see the challenge here to be: How to exploit the great capabilities of modern IT to serve the needs of humans to find meaning in the story that can now be told in a much richer way while avoiding the same burdens of complexity mentioned earlier. Emulating pages and bookmarks on a screen is trivial. Harness the power of search, indexing, random access, metadata, timestamped updates and collaborative content creation please. Do it without a toolbar that has fifty icons. Put me in control of the voyage and let me take the route I want.
    This will take a while. I’m working on one solution for one segment of the market.
    Until real progress in transforming books and reading starts to take shape, the marketplace will be cluttered with gadgets that are not of much value.
    It turns out that cranking out new hardware is much easier than developing breakthrough software.

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