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The future of the book

FutureDuring lunch at TOC last Wednesday, we had a roundtable discussion that centered on the future of the book. The conversation touched on many different areas, as you would expect. From distribution and inventory, to pricing and formats, to audience ownership and engagement. It was an interesting discussion but challenging because there is not one solution that will fit all publishers. We all have unique brands, focus, and particular ways of publishing, so finding a silver bullet will be virtually impossible.

It occurred to me, that as an industry, we should try to build a list of important concepts, features, and ideas that will help us all work towards building The Book of the Future. So I will start the list here, and invite everyone reading to contribute to the list through the comments below. Pass this post onto your colleagues and start a discussion. Let's change the The Book of the Future before we have to.

These items are in no particular order.

Easy-to-use authoring tools that enable content creation and distribution

Most publishers realized the inherent benefits of getting content into XML/DocBook. Yet most authoring tools that are easy to use, are horrible at getting usable XML out of the authoring environment. I know, many purport to offer XML conversion, but it is still an arduous process to clean up those conversions, and what a waste of time and resources. The existing XML tools on the other hand, are typically for the more geeky authors who write in mark up naturally. They are not intended for significant works with lots of art, cross references, interesting layout. XMLMind, ASCIIDoc and Oxygen are the three that we recommend for creating easy to generate and use XML. There proprietary tool chains that work for some publishers relatively well but they are not shared with the industry. There are other significant problems with XML — it's based on the idea that content and appearance can be separated, so, as I already mentioned, it's not particularly suited for books with significant art, or any type of book where the layout is part of the content. So I think one component of The Book of the Future needs to center on making the upfront writing and creative work easy, intuitive, and productive for authors. Better enabling our authors will benefit everyone, including the cheese sandwich makers.

Readily available in all formats

Today we kind of know what formats people want to read their book in. Print, APK, DAISY, ePub, Mobi, and PDF are the most notable formats today. But what will be the most favored format three years from now? You might pick one format from the previous list, but what if some wiz-bang new device comes out and makes reading an amazing experience anywhere you are without effort, and knows when your eyes have stopped focusing so it tells you to take a break. The point is, we'll need to be able to get our content onto devices and formats that are not yet available. So how do we get authoring tools to make it easy to get into all these different formats without a resource investment that kills a reasonable P&L? And how do you have print inventory right-sized to a changing market, yet stock is on hand? Can publishing do Just in Time much like Amazon does for retailing? The Book of the Future will need to be in all formats and all channels on its pub-date.

Continuous Updates (more tech-oriented and some non-fiction)

For many categories in publishing, the content that is published has a very short shelf-life. There is a need to keep content updated and relevant. But how do you make changes without taking back inventory or having two similar, but not exactly similar products on the market? Is the solution similar to what happens when you purchase an App in an App Store? In other words, will publishers start pushing out updates, new chapters, and errata fixes, to registered users for all their content in the future? Will there be "in-app" purchases similar to what we see in app now? In essence, if someone purchases content, should they get lifetime updates, enhancements, revisions, fixes and the like? Is this something that The Book of the Future needs to provide?

Rich media integration

We all know about, or have seen examples of integrated media. Will combining several of the various elements become the expected minimum viable product? Will publishing be hiring more producers with TV production in their background for creating great learning experiences? Will the early rich-products look like the early web-pages with a feature-overloaded look and feel? Are we going to see Media Designers become the highly-paid and coveted jobs in publishing? Will The Book of the Future really be a media-container for more than a book?

Socially and personally connects readers to publisher/author/community

Wow, this was a long time coming. Audience has always been a key focus of authors and publishers, but now days, we are getting closer to our beloved followers. Connecting readers to authors, and authors to readers, and readers to like minded readers, and readers to publishers, and publishers to communities is getting easier with the abundance of social media options. Will connecting social media as an in-App experience will take publishing to a new level? Will making content passages easier to share help sell more books? Will publishers need to abandon DRM to make this social connections work on a large scale? Will books be judged based on how many followers, friends, posts, tweets, status updates, etc. there are related to the book? Will The Book of the Future be a social event rather than a static view of content?

Engages the distracted and partial attention society

We've all heard about how our attention is being overloaded by too many media and information options. How are we going to create learning experiences that are tailored to individual attention spans. Some people may be able to focus for 20 minutes while others may last several hours before needing a break. How do we win the the competition for our readers minds? Is the solution to create many smaller loosely joined components that work at bursty intervals? Does this let the reader learn, read, and enjoy at their pace? Will the social anthropologists, cognitive scientists, and watching the digital natives provide us with the insights to build The Book of the Future.

Written and translated simultaneously

This has been long overdue and needs to be done soon. The simplified process for writing a book is 1) author writes, 2) publisher edits, 3) author/publisher approve changes, 4) book is printed and distributed in various channels, including digital. In the majority of cases, why are we waiting to throw the project over the fence to the international rights groups to begin translation, after the fact. In today's world, with all the amazing technology, why do we wait for translations to happen? We have tools like Subversion, and Git that can make this straightforward, so why not write a chapter and have a translater work on a forked version. Translators would see any changes to the original and could alter their version. Will The Book of the Future be published in several languages simultaneously?

Gamification features

There is plenty of evidence showing that people react to Gamification principles in a compelling manner, and in some cases an addictive manner. So why is the publishing industry waiting to build this into our products? Are we waiting to make sure it 'sticks' before we invest resources? Some people say Gamification will be to this decade what Social was to the previous decade. Can you imagine that people will earn things for reading, learning and engaging with your content? Shouldn't students get more immediate feedback and fun from their textbook? Would it be great to leave one device you are reading on, continue your journey, game, assignment and login to a different device and pick up where you left off (some devices have this in nascent for now)? Will Gamification be a big part of The Book of the Future for your organization?

Access from the source

Will your future products put your customers more in touch with you, the publisher, rather than the retailer, professor, bookstore, or some other intermediary. Will in-book purchases (like in-App purchases) put you closer to your audience? Will your direct sales of The Book of the Future make up for any declines you see in your existing channels and will you create new channels?

Culture, staffing, and innovation

As the landscape in publishing changes due to technology, disruption in market distribution, and a new generation of readers, will your company undergo a change in culture, staffing and leadership? When you compare the publishing industry to others, it looks as though we have moved quite slowly. Is Google the same company it was 10 years ago? Microsoft? Yet many in publishing have done very little to innovate and ignite this industry. As an industry, need to give Amazon a boatload of credit for forcing us all to be more innovative. Does our culture of building great, noble and scholarly works need to change to a more 'fail forward fast' mentality where we are meeting market demands in a "just in time" manner. Much more like a software company that releases early, often and continuous. I have heard over the years, that the publishing industry is like running with the slow kid on the block, so are going keep dragging our feet, or look for talent to bring in from other industries to help us create The Book of the Future.

Open source

A natural reaction in a declining market, from most corporate entities, is to hoard their assets and keep them safely guarded with DRM and the like. This is a closed and proprietary view of doing business. There are enough case studies showing how Open Sourcing your products actually creates a larger eco-system and a more vibrant market. We need to think about the industry and not individual company success. How do you make money if you're giving the content away? What is the cost of free? Most publishers won't consider Open Source / Creative Commons licenses for some reason, yet those of us that do, are growing and thriving. What does open source do to the publishing ecosystem, make it larger and stronger? Margaret Atwood's brilliant depiction of a part of the ecosystem, cautions publishing to neither accidentally or intentionally eliminate the author (part of the ecosystem). When the industry defines and deploys the The Book of the Future, we need to make sure the industry is healthy by making the ideas, technology and models Open Source in spirit. Obviously there are components that will help companies remain unique, but let's get our industry moving in a healthy direction, together!

Priced fairly

Creating more value than you capture is an essential ingredient for successful publishing in the future. Tim O'Reilly has instilled this sort of thinking in all of us at O'Reilly. If you use this train of thought to guide your pricing decisions, you'll do well. There is something going on in our industry that needs to self correct. Average prices are going up, and average units sold is going down. I understand this pricing strategy helps a publisher not lose money (fewer units at a higher price can actually drive a bottom line profit). We need to think carefully about our pricing decisions when we figure how to price The Book of the Future. I wonder which rocket-scientist decided to price a digital edition so much lower the the print analog. I find the digital edition more useful, portable, and convenient. Yet somehow digital is valued less in our industry's pricing strategy. Could it be that some large retailers have artificially set the price low and don't care about the ecosystem so they can sell less-than-adequate devices instead of valuing the most important asset — the content. I don't think we have to wait for a market correction, we are squarely in the middle of it now. Self-publishing, direct sales strategies, the rise of small publishers, new open devices, piracy and broken DRM are all indications that our pricing strategies as an industry are off-kilter. Create more value than you capture, think about your readers first, your ecosystem second, and your P&L third.

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