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December 17 2010

The future of publishing is writeable

TOC 2011Publication of information obviously includes traditional media, such as books, newspapers, magazines, music, and video. But we can generalize considerably to include blogs, tagging (e.g., Delicious, Flickr), commenting systems, Twitter, Facebook, and Myspace.

From a biological point of view, publishing can expand to encompass all of human social signaling -- both verbal and non-verbal -- and include the myriad little acts of information production and consumption we all engage in.

Even seen from this outer limit of generality, it's clear that digital is ushering in a rapid convergence in publishing. While some forms are born digital and online, others are being reinvented there as technological advance sets old media free. There is massive disruption -- both behind and ahead of us -- as the convergence continues.

Three convergence trends: smaller, easier, more personal

There are three convergence trends in publishing that are already apparent.

One clear long-term trend is that smaller pieces of information are being published. Considering just modern digital forms of publishing, there is a roughly chronological progression toward smaller publications: emails, Usenet postings, web pages, blog posts, blog comments, tweets, tags.

Traditional media are also being fractured into smaller pieces, particularly where the media packaging existed only to address physical quirks of the media or the act of publishing. To give one example: Popular music publishing centered on delivering albums. This was a by-product of physical equipment -- LPs, CDs, and their players -- which did not align particularly well with the more natural unit of popular musical output, the song. Given low-cost flexible alternatives, it's no wonder that these forms of content are now jumping the packaging ship and going directly digital in pieces that make more sense. This leaves traditional publishers scratching their heads and clinging to increasingly irrelevant and anachronistic packaging methodologies -- newspapers being another example -- with attendant declining advertising possibilities. Clay Shirky has written and spoken with insight and eloquence on these changes (see here and here).

A second trend is a reduction in friction. As access to easy-to-use and inexpensive publishing technology increases, it becomes economically feasible to publish smaller and less valuable pieces of content. We have reached the point where anyone with access to the Internet can easily and cheaply publish trivial, tiny pieces of information -- even single words.

The third trend is the rise of publishing personal information. Our inescapable sociability is driving us to shape the Internet into a mechanism for publishing information about ourselves.

These three trends -- smaller, easier, more personal -- provide a framework to examine the development of online information publishing.

The three trends and the future of books

Over the last few months, interesting discussion has arisen about the future of books and publishing. One provocative example is Hugh McGuire's post "The line between book and Internet will disappear." Let's consider what the trends of smaller, easier, and more personal might tell us about Hugh's topic: the future of books.

First, these trends reinforce Hugh's claim that the line between book
and Internet will disappear. The forces of convergence in publishing
are surely strong enough to drag the book across that line. But more
specifically, which of these trends will books succumb to? Which will
books resist?

Books typically have an internal coherence that may prevent their traditional packaging from fracturing along more natural fault lines the way it does with newspapers, magazines and albums. But as the difficulties and costs of publishing continue to fall, and as methods for online billing evolve, publishers or authors may themselves opt to fracture book packaging for economic reasons. It was not long ago that novels were routinely published in serialized form. If it's all digital, why not?

Because modern forms of publishing are giving end users a voice, it seems a safe bet that books will become living digital objects and that the traditional distinctions between author and reader, and between publisher and consumer, will blur considerably.

Conceptually, though perhaps not technologically, there's a long way to go. Even the most avant-garde online services are only now contemplating this kind of future. I'm willing to bet that Hugh is also right that publishers' products will have APIs. The API, provided that it allows users and applications to write, can be the vehicle by which a book is alive on the Internet, in the sense that it will allow the contribution of information to books, and make that information actionable.

Terry Jones will discuss the writeable future of publishing at the next Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (Feb. 14-16, 2011). Save 15% on registration with the code TOC11RAD.

A world of writeable containers

Looking at publishing from the broad perspective outlined above, with its clear general convergence and specific trends, I consider it inevitable that books and their publishers will be drawn into a digital future along the lines that Hugh predicts.

You can look at this more widely, though. Publishing will converge on the usage of underlying information storage that provides for a world of openly writeable containers. You could, for example, build a Twitter-like system on such a basis, providing seamlessly for user annotations. At the other end of the spectrum, you could use this type of writeable system to publish customizable living digital objects -- writeable containers -- representing books (or anything else). VC Fred Wilson lends weight to the claim of convergence toward a more openly writeable world in his blog post, "Giving every person a voice":

If I look back at my core investment thesis over the past five years, it is this single idea, that everyone has a voice on the Internet, that is central to it. And as Ev [Williams] said, society has not fully realized what this means. But it's getting there, quickly.

As Brian O'Leary noted in "Context first", mental models and mindset changes are required. Shifting people from read-only thinking to imagining a computational world that is by-default writeable is something I've been trying to pull off for years. (FluidDB, a database we're building at Fluidinfo, is meant to explicitly prepare for the type of future Hugh envisions. Everything in FluidDB can be added to -- tagged -- by anyone or any application. )

Read-only containers of content are an inherently limiting form of media, whether physical or digital. APIs that provide controlled access to information are similarly limited. They prevent the accumulation of unanticipated or personalized contextual information.

From one perspective, arguing that this kind of convergence is inevitable may seem like a radical oversimplification or wishful thinking, but from another it seems deadly simple and obvious. In plainest terms, I believe the future of publishing is a writeable one. One in which we step beyond the default of read-only publishing via traditional containers and APIs, to something that's both natural and empowering: a world in which data itself becomes social, and in which we can personalize arbitrarily. In other words, a world in which we always have write permission.


December 06 2010

TOC hosting publishing startup showcase

This year at TOC, we're hosting our first ever Publishing Startup Showcase. Highlighting the startup ecosystem's creativity and variety, the Showcase will give you a chance to get your company in front of a global community of leaders in the publishing and technology industries -- as well as potential investors.

On Tuesday evening, February 15th, we'll have approximately 20 publishing and publishing-related startups demoing in one large room. If your company is chosen to participate, we'll provide you with a small table and room for two people to demo -- you'll bring a laptop (or two) and a founder (or two).

TOC attendees and a panel of judges from the investor community will have 50 minutes to visit the demos and listen to your pitches. We'll sound a chime every five minutes, letting people know it's time to circulate. As they walk around, attendees will vote on their favorite demos. At the end of the hour, the judges will announce their top picks, along with the audience favorite. These winning startups will then each give a pitch and have an on-stage conversation with the judges.

Here's what we're looking for:

  • Relatively young publishing (and publishing-related) startups that aren't drowning in investment (yet)
  • Companies incorporating new technologies and/or innovative business models in their approach to publishing.

If you're selected:

  • You'll supply your own laptop for the demos (we won't provide power, so we recommend bringing two laptops)
  • Wireless Internet access will be available, so web-based demos are okay.
  • You'll bring a maximum of two people (at least one of whom must be a founder or C-level equivalent)
  • The week prior to the event, you'll supply us with a presentation of 2-4 slides that includes screenshots for your onstage pitch in case you are selected
  • You'll receive a complementary TOC Day Pass that will get you into all of Tuesday's keynotes, sessions, and events.
  • Submit your proposal by Jan. 10, 2011.

    November 05 2010

    TOC 2011 preliminary program announced

    TOC 2011The preliminary program for Tools of Change 2011 is now online.

    In addition to traditional book publishers discussing their experiences from the trenches of change, TOC also brings in ideas from the wider global ecosystem.

    Breakout sessions include:

    • Is There Such a Thing as a Good Business Model for Publishing These Days?
    • eTextbooks in Higher Education: Practical Findings to Guide the Industry
    • Can you Afford not to Consider Accessible Publishing Practices?
    • Data-driven Marketing and Product Development
    • Copyright, Intellectual Property Rights, and Licensing Issues in the Digital Era
    • Build a Book API in an Afternoon, Using FluidDB
    • Improving Your Publishing Metadata and Delivery
    • See the rest of the preliminary lineup

    Featured speakers

    • Ben Huh, I Can Has Cheezburger
    • Margaret Atwood, author and CEO of Syngrafii
    • Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired and author of "What Technology Wants"
    • See the full list of speakers

    Save 15% on TOC 2011 registration with the code "TOC11RAD"

    Thank you

    Our gratitude goes out to the following people who helped review the 200+ proposals, and offered much-appreciated advice on shaping the content for TOC 2011:

    • Patricia Arancibia
    • Mark Bertils
    • Peter Brantley
    • Liza Daly
    • Kate Eltham
    • Dedi Felman
    • José Afonso Furtado
    • Heather McCormack
    • Kevin Shockey
    • Sarah Weinman
    • Sarah Wendell

    We hope to see you in February

    O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference
    February 14-16, 2011
    Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers
    New York, NY

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