Henry Ford said “They can have any color as long as it’s black” and, in so doing, summed up what industrial production is all about. What we gain in scale, we ultimately lose in choice becoming - in the process - beholden to the manufacturer to deliver to us what they believe we desire. Manufacturing has obviously come a long way since the age of Henry Ford, and a few industries have even become so flexible that consumers sometimes don’t believe they are receiving specifically made products. I remember the Japanese bike manufacturer that had so improved their production processes that they could measure a client for any model of bike in one of their showrooms, build it and ship it to the customer the next day. The problem: Customers didn’t believe the bikes were made to fit since they received them so quickly. The solution: Hold production for a week and then send out the bikes.
It would be a stretch today for anyone in publishing to agree to the proposition that the future of their business could depend on not publishing a ‘finished’ product. As the industry meanders forward, we are reaching the point when presuming (and, I think, limiting) how a consumer is going to use content will significantly restrict the potential market. Historically, a publisher would codify how their content was to be used by signing a series of agreements for versions in audio, large print, foreign language, book club, etc. Not only are those agreements increasingly cumbersome they are identifiably restrictive as more and more potential consumers are seeking out content which is flexible to their particular situation and purpose ie: I’ll take the French, large print, audio version please: Only they can’t - at least not legally. Making this concoction easy for a consumer to access may seem like a small market opportunity but the point is much larger: Let the consumer decide how they want to use and engage with your content.
There is a huge preoccupation with e-Books today. E-Books are a format and a distribution mechanism and, as such, not particularly interesting. To me, the issue is a little like discussing the capabilities of a new type of printer. The real interest lies in the changing production processes that enable the rendering of content on e-Readers. Not perfect yet (by any means) and many publishers are still vandalizing print files to get to the format they need for the Kindle or what-have-you. Some may recall that, through the 1990s, consultants and publishing “know-it-all’s” spoke about developing production processes that were independent of format, suggesting the end product could appear in any form. Automation and changed processes have, of course, been implemented, but no one reached the point where they could produce multiple versions of the same product in an infinite number of formats and combinations.
At the Start With XML conference (and subsequently at TOC), we witnessed the dawning of a new type of publishing. Fully customizable, adaptable and capable of matching the particular needs of the consumer, XML content will enable the type of flexible delivery of content that is coming. Companies such as SharedBook are positioned to facilitate the unanticipated, unique and creative ways a consumer may want to use your content. And, as a publisher, you should be comfortable with enabling the consumer to - in effect - make his or her own product. As an example, a publisher can make content available to consumers during what historically may have been considered the production process: Consumers can comment, add their own notes and links, perhaps add their own content and, at the point the consumer is satisfied they have a product they want, they can ‘publish’ it. That point of publishing may or may not coincide with the publishers’ date and, in fact, the publisher may not ever ‘complete’ their books in a traditional sense but allow them to live and breath and enable any future consumer to decide when they want to ‘publish’.
Experiments such as those at Future of the Book have enabled a dialog between reader, author and other readers that may allow a ‘user’ to chose to ‘publish’ their book whenever they are ready, even as the conversation continues online.
When the consumer does publish this title, they do it their way. As a publisher, I may be investing in an XML-based content warehouse, but if I continue to think of the traditional output (i.e., printed books where I select cover, trim size, paper or eBooks where I select the formats and ‘extras’) then my XML investment is under utilized. I will also be short-changing my customers. As publishers, we need to experiment (and educate authors) but I don’t need to (or can’t) presume how my customer is going to use the content; all I need to do is to ensure that they have the ability to use it any way they want.
Across all media, we haven’t reached that spot yet. We still presume, based on a limitation of the technology we had at hand, about what our consumers will purchase and how they will use the material. Certainly, there are ‘degrees’ of XML and perhaps some publishers only have a title and header (for Chapters) tag for their titles, but others are experimenting and building more sophisticated products. Any buyer of a business book, for example, should be able to access the full content, read it and hear it, translate it, create a presentation in PowerPoint or download a ‘business briefs’ version. If they want, the user should be able to gain access to the document so if they want to print 75 copies of selected chapters for their executive outing and bundle the content with other material, they can do so.
In the near future, publishers may decide not to print or ‘publish’ a finished product themselves. Aside from selected titles – maybe most front-list where (only as an example) volume may play a role - a publisher may not print any books. Rather, they will enable retailers to print their titles based on demand. Barnes & Noble prints all the titles they carry in their stores for example. They are effectively on-demand with very little, or no inventory carry. B&N has the ability to use the ‘content’ however they want in print form: From premium boxed and signed versions to mass market. In another example, Michael’s the crafts store, enables its customers to integrate ‘how to’ content from a publisher such as F&W into their scrap-book projects or print selected chapters from books at an in-store kiosk.
But these are a small subset of the breadth of content distribution that could occur if publishers stop limiting themselves from thinking about the traditional ‘book’. As described, the application of flexible publishing using XML as a base is easier to comprehend for some publishing segments than others. However, even novels can be read as comic books: long form is always singled out as ‘oh, but we can’t do that with Christie’. Perhaps, but maybe your customers can and enabling that will generate more revenues and more customer satisfaction. A real challenge would be to turn a comic into a long-form novel.
Lastly, some argue that the publishing industry is doomed as the tools to reach customers become easier to access and use. That presupposes that the publishers and the industry remain static. The future isn’t static and, while some publishers are going to fail, those publishers that presented at the Start with XML conference such as Cengage, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and others prove that innovation and experimentation are alive and our future may not be so dire.