Not quite knowing

Yesterday, I joined the Firebrand Community Conference, a (more or less) annual event that the publishing software and services provider hosts in its hometown of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Even with the Red Sox playing worse than they have in any season in the last two decades, it's still a treat to head back to my home state.

In the afternoon, I gave a new presentation, "The next plateau", that talked about three things I think are on the publishing horizon:

• Immediate, global distribution and sales
• Integrated metadata for print and digital products
• Constantly evolving descriptions of published products

In some ways and for some markets, these things are already true. In my remarks, I gave examples drawn from territorial rights research conducted on behalf of Livres Canada Books as well as some of the metadata research sponsored earlier this year by Book Industry Study Group and Booknet Canada.

During the day, I also had an opportunity to attend sessions on eBook pricing strategies, new required skills for publishing people and metadata issues related to selling books internationally. Firebrand tries to conduct its conference sessions as interactive discussions, and the audience had a good deal to add.

Each of the panels struck a common chord when it came to digital formats and technologies. As Firebrand chief Fran Toolan noted in his opening remarks, much of publishing has migrated from "what do we think about digital?" to "how do we make digital formats work for us?" Many of the discussions addressed that latter question.

It's encouraging to hear the shift in mindset since Firebrand's last community conference in 2010, and it got me thinking about the "The curation of obscurity" a chapter Peter Brantley contributed to Book: A Futurist's Manifesto. In it, Peter wrote:

"As we encounter the book’s future, we also face the challenge of not knowing the true state of the thing it is we want to talk about. To be droll, it has not changed but is in the act of changing, and may yet soon be the thing it will become while preserving certain aspects of what it is. It is as if Schrodinger’s Cat is made real; the book exists in a superposition of forms, paper and virtual; yet when we pause to consider it, we must perceive it in the light of one, casting only a vague and translucent shadow on the other, lest it appear as an enigmatic muddle."

I think this is the challenge we face. Defining the future in terms that extend what we already know obscures the possibility that "digital" changes storytelling itself, and not just for genres like fiction. If that's the case, we may be at another of those inflection points that highlight how much we don't know what we don't know.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.