Two coasts

Yesterday, the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) hosted its third executive lunch. Organized as a roundtable discussion, the theme this time was “Opening the Book”. The three-hour meeting included presentations from Craig Mod, speaking about indigenous and subcompact publishing, and Hugh McGuire, who talked about networked books.

These are ideas that both Mod and McGuire have addressed before, particularly at last fall’s “Books in Browsers” meeting. But (as BISG executive director Len Vlahos aptly summarized later in the discussion) “opening the book” has largely remained a “west coast” or Silicon Valley conversation.

The "east coast" presentations brought to the table representatives from a mix of organizations largely absent from the conversations that have taken place at the first three iterations of “Books in Browsers” (BiB). For the BISG event, participants came from a mix of traditional supply-chain participants, including Bowker, Readerlink, Penguin, McGraw-Hill, Random House, HarperCollins and Kaplan (who kindly hosted).

Mod dedicated much of his talk to the idea that designing for specific interfaces – “indigenous publishing” – is a necessary next step, one that will serve readers and publishers alike. He also talked about the threat to traditional publishing posed by newer, simpler entrants. Most of his examples (Medium, The Magazine) continue to have a periodical feel, but the lessons can be extended to book formats, as well.

McGuire started his talk by offering lessons learned in the eight years since he launched LibriVox, which supports crowd-sourced development of public-domain audiobooks. The work convinced McGuire that there is a significant market for tools that support more effective approaches to content creation, management and dissemination.

His latest development effort, the open-source PressBooks tool, has been chronicled here in some detail. McGuire spent relatively little time explaining PressBooks, instead offering ten ideas that he feels will characterize the book of the future, starting with his much-shared expectation that the book and the internet will soon merge. He wrapped up his talk with a call to view the book as API.

The discussion that followed was cordial, but over the course of a half hour or so, it did expose the east-west distinction that Vlahos subsequently captured. BISG has been working to amplify the impact of its many initiatives, and Vlahos offered that there is value in having the proponents of disruption (he included me in that cohort) and advocates of traditional publishing meet and talk in the middle.

The lunch provided that opportunity, and it’s a start. Speaking plainly, the absence of traditional publishers from the BiB conversation has been noted since its debut in 2010, when I first delivered “Context first”. The content of the event has not been particularly relevant to the established community, and it shows in the makeup of those who choose to attend.

In talking about subcompact publishing, Mod noted that established businesses dismiss disruptive entrants as too small, too weak or irrelevant, while the challengers pioneer new uses in under-served or even over-served markets. I see commercial value in what Mod and McGuire talked about yesterday, but I’ve also grown skeptical about convincing traditional publishers that the value is there.

Vlahos is right; there are lessons to take away from both sets of views. The odd thing for me is this: I think of myself not as a disruptor, but as someone who has worked to limit the impact of disruption on traditional publishing. Speaking only for me (and not Mod or McGuire): it is hard to find a middle when we first have to persuade businesses that they need to be saved.

Edited May 29 to add a bit of disclosure: Hugh McGuire and I co-edited Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, and I've talked with him on many occasions about PressBooks. Neither McGuire nor Craig Mod, with whom I have a professional relationship, was involved in the planning for or writing of this post. Last year, I was hired by the Book Industry Study Group to research and write a report on the creation, use and modification of metadata in the book industry supply chain. Len Vlahos oversaw that work. I paid to attend the executive lunch described in this post. 

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.

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