In the 1990s I worked for a map and atlas publisher that sold its products primarily in the trade and education markets. The company had developed a digital database of the world, one that included linework for political and geographic features as well as an index of over 300,000 named entities. It was one of the first, if not the first, digital projects of that scale.
When I joined the company, the database was already several years old, with many of the problems that first-generation databases have. It had absorbed the errors and idiosyncracies of its source materials, which had largely been printed maps. The company was reluctant to invest more to fix the errors, and traditional cartographers were equally reluctant to use the database, as its results were not considered predictable.
But the single largest challenge was one of conception. The database had been created to generate world-scale maps of the type published in the company's flagship atlas. It was designed to complete a narrow task, one that would never justify the investment that had already been made in the tool.
In the past, big atlases had typically generated significant revenues when they were published. The owners – my bosses – chased that history by making deals with international publishing houses to create translations of world scale maps.
They also partnered with a U.S.-based publisher to create a CD version of the flagship book. In all cases, the goal was fundamentally the same: we sought to recreate the underlying work using digital tools that were valued for their potential efficiency (if we could only fix those random errors).
I'd like to be able to report that I immediately saw the flaws in this approach and steered the company to both safety and profitability. On all counts, I failed. I focused on fixing the errors, making the workflow more efficient and trying to take on as much contract work as we could.
This bit of history came to mind in mid-August, when Dublin-based Eoin Purcell pointed me to "Why disruption goes unchecked", a post by Baldur Bjarnason. In it, Bjarnason argues:
It’s unrealistic to expect profitable niches to remain uncontested. That competition won’t be coming from other publishers but from your own authors, self-published authors, web and app developers, tech companies, and specialists looking to capitalise on their expertise without involving a middleman.
Or, to borrow a bit more from Bjarnason: "There is no one fixed way that digital has to use to address a particular market segment. Print has only one solution for every problem: a book."
Early in 1996, while I was working to make atlas publishing more efficient, one of my managers called me into his office and asked for my home address. He typed it into a search box on an early version of Mapquest. A pin dropped on a crude map of the street where I live.
The pin was on the wrong side of the street, and at that time all you could do was look at the map – no directions were available. When I later showed the product to my bosses, they laughed at what they called "toy maps".
Over the next few years, the U.S. government declassified data that supported mapping down to a city block. We used the data to create topographical maps of surpassing beauty, published in books that sold for US$70. I still have those atlases, but I don't use them.
Instead, I get directions on the web, ported to my cell phone. I look up geographic reference data using crowdsourced content created on sites like Wikipedia. And they reference work of record in the 1990s – the CIA World Factbook – is now available to all, on the web.
Reference publishing may have been digital's first casualty, but it will not be its last. Print is a filter that continues to blind us.