June 5th, 2006

Book Publishing 2.0: Books As Continuously Updated Idea Platforms


The NYT has an article on digital book publishing, which already has responses from Umair Haque and Jeff Jarvis. These got me thinking about an idea for book publishing 2.0, based on the following:

1. Ideas, markets, and technology are changing so rapidly that a static book is quickly outdated.
2. Books with long-term value have always been republished as new “editions.”
3. Books create value as a one-stop-shop on a specific topic by organizing and synthesizing a sea of information from myriad sources.
4. Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” blog is an example of a pre-publication approach to publishing 2.0 — harnessing the community interested in the topic to flesh out ideas.
5. RSS offers a platform for continuous content updates — and podcast feeds are an example of updates tied to a digital device.
6. It won’t be long before someone invents the iPod of books, which makes the digital reading experience comparable (if not better than) the paper-based reading experience.

So here’s the idea for publishing 2.0: the book as continuously updated idea platform

Let’s take Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail as an example — after the book’s publication, long tail economics will continue to evolve rapidly, but the book will remain static (even if Chris continues to operate his blog). But what if the book didn’t remain static? What if the book was continuously updated and republished in new “editions” that incorporate:

1. Reader comments and supplemental “user-generated” content
2. Updates and revisions that reflect evolving trends and new ideas

In this scenario, a book is still an organized body of knowledge on a topic shaped by an author’s vision, perspective, and expertise — but it is also a living, breathing, adaptable entity, able to respond to its readers and incorporate new thinking (both from the author and from readers).

So imagine: rather than buying a book, you subscribe to it: you get the current edition, access to reader-only forums (i.e. community) in which the author actively participates, and a “feed” of continuous content updates. If an author were committed to the topic, the book could be sold as an annual subscription.

This model would allow the author to continue to be the steward of the idea or the top — in Chris’ case, he could continue to steward the “long tail” idea.

As Chris did, the author could maintain a blog as the public face of the book, allowing others to link in.

I’ll admit this idea needs a lot more baking — but I’m going to harness the power of blogging by throwing it out there and enlisting others to help flesh it out.

Here’s the holy grail: a vision of the book that both John Updike and Jeff Jarvis could embrace. Perhaps that’s pie in the sky, but I remain a devoted believer in the middle ground.

Comments (34 Responses so far)

  1. The New York Times article that probably started this round: Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules Richard Charkin’s post Are books dead? Jeff Jarvis’ post, Book.net Publishing 2.0 post:Books as Continually Updated Idea Platforms, by Scott Karp I

  2. their words may appear on the surface to be at odds they both share a common passion for a better world. UPDATE : Comment is free joins the conversation UPDATE 2 : Jeff Jarvis continues the conversation over on BuzzMachine UPDATE 3 : Scott Karpmoves the conversation along from ‘either or’ to ‘yes and’

  3. Here’s a better idea: all books should be published as wikis! That way, we can all enjoy the wonderful and irrefutable benefits of collective intelligence and not have to rely on “experts” (like, say, the books’ authors) to decide what we can and can’t know. It’s the democracy and egalitarianism of the Web at it’s finest. I guess we’ll all just have to agree on a consensus neutral point of view for all edits, and we’re in business!

  4. Ron, why does it have to be one extreme or the other — all authority or all collective?

  5. Abe is doing versioned releases of his new book: http://nomadeconomics.org/

  6. Because that’s the Web-infinity-plus-one bloggy emergent hypermetasemantic way!

    Seriously – once you admit there’s some value in authority, it pokes a hole in the evangelism. It means there’s something, somewhere, which might not be better, where the marketers and promoters will make things *worse*. That’s a big problem for the demagoguery (also the reverse, if the authorities ever admit a use for data-mining).

  7. Seth, if “triangulating” a “third way” worked in politics, in can work here — neither side is going to be happy about compromising their ideals and principles, but that’s the only way to avoid an ideological (partisan) death spiral.

  8. Pragmatic Programmer (http://www.pragmaticprogrammer.com/) has done versioned releases of books. Namely, the latest Agile Web Development with Rails book can be purchased as a subscription to versioned PDF releases. Not only is it cheaper for the consumer, but according to PP, it works better for them too (economically).

  9. I’ll say upfront in the interest of full-disclosure that I am part of a company, EnhancedBooks.Com, that is engaged in creating a platform for what you describe.

    Interestingly, you have articulated the essence of what we at EnhancedBooks are trying to capture in spirit and practice. It is our goal to help authors, readers and publishers connect in new ways with all benefiting from the experience. There exists a great deal of interesting potential, imagined and unimagined, that I ponder quite often and a publishing industry very slow to change and adapt.

    I think that anyone who ignores or decries this is trend, be they author, reader or publisher, does so out of fear and nostolgia. Personally, i’m glad that I’m not carrying clay tablets or hand-written manuscripts around. I’m also not advocating that we destroy the printed book, I am saying that we could benefit from thinking and acting in a differnt way though. Afterall, are we all not trying to increase knowlege and understanding?

  10. But Scott, here we’re talking about people who are like the Party primary voters – they don’t want moderation, they want partisanship and ideological purity :-).

  11. Seth, you’re frightening. Also spot on, but scary anyway :)

    If there’s one book publishing market that I think could really benefit from Scott’s model, it would be travel. “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The…” well, wherever, really. I asked Lonely Planet if they planned to do digital versions of their guides, possibly something iPod-compatible, and I was flatly told no.

    That’s too bad. My copy of USA and Canada on a Shoestring has a lengthy chapter on New Orleans. That chapter is entirely useless now. And there are no plans to update this book anytime soon by the publisher, either.

    Maybe Rough Guides will take up the challenge, and there will be a Nike-Apple-Rough Guides announcement by Steve Jobs in the future. Your running shoes will know where you are and where to go for a beer; now that’s advanced technology.

  12. Just because the internet allows for greater collaboration and real-time updates doesn’t mean that either would necessarily be a boon to a) fiction b) nonfiction c) serious critical essays. Collections and memoirs, perhaps, will see a rise in quality if forced into the “2.0” publishing model.

    The real “publishing 2.0″? Print on demand. Less risk for the publisher, more reward to the author for doing exceptionally well.

  13. Sorry, Scott. My tongue was firmly in my cheek. Cheers.

  14. Ron, have the courage of your convictions! To quote Stephen Colbert:

    Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books. They’re all fact, no heart.

    Web infinity-plus-one is made of people! Not lectures via dead trees!

    [Note though this is tongue-in-cheek, there's a serious undercurrent in it]

  15. I expect that books (that are expected to evolve over time) will often be sold the way that some software products already are, such as antivirus products. Buy the current version, and be encouraged to buy a subscription for updates and access to the online forums etc., and to renew it annually. (The desire to keep subscribers renewing will be strong incentive for the author to issue updates.) You’ll normally download the book, but if you pay extra you can get it shipped to you on physical media (such as “paper”). Some books’ subscriptions will cover “major upgrades” and some won’t.

  16. Kate, the iPod of books will obviate the need for print on demand — until then, yeah it’s a no-brainer.

    Ron, if you read too quickly it’s easy to confuse satire with some of the more extreme ideological views out there.

    Seth, remember that history is written by the victor — in this case, the “people.”

  17. I think that there is evidence to support the notion that when a set of tools are provided, people find new and novel ways to use those tools. The publishing industry does not understand, for the most part, that the knowlege contained within the pages has additional value in a networked context. Their initial fear is that their books will be “stolen” and printed offshore and dumped into the market as counterfiets. You don’t need an electronic delivery mechanism to facilitate that. A good scanner and printing and binding is all that’s neccessary so that excuse is typically a non-starter. After addressing objection after objection, usually only the most obstinate oppose embracing something like this. The reate of obstinance is upwards of 99%…

    Simply, they are generally as scared, uninformed and archaic as the music industry is/was in widening the exposure and their distribution channels. It’s about the fear of losing control and a lack of education and vision. We meet with publishers all of the time. Once we spend the time educating them and they “get it”, you can visibly see the light bulb go on.

    Not to rant too much here, I live this every day…. I could go on and on…

  18. Lots of books hold up over time, at least the books I keep. Maybe you should broaden your experience with and historical knowledge of books if you’re going to make some of these claims.

    Statement 1 is just silly and untrue.

    Statement 2 is historically false.

    I really dig what you’re doing but why start with such easily disputed points? That just undermines your credibility and suggests you are unfamiliar with books as actually existing objects in the world.

    No disrespect intended.

  19. Clyde,

    1. Really? Pick up any book on the Internet or technology from 1999. Or, less extreme, pick up John Battelle’s Search — his history of Google is certainly still very valuable, but the story of Google is evolving every day — Google is still rewriting the rules of business and transforming our culture. Stuff I wrote on this blog a few months ago is outdated. I don’t know if you misread “outdated” to mean that everything in books is quickly rendered worthless — that’s certainly not what I meant. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that many books are soon in need of updating.

    2. Huh? Lots of books are republished with new editions — I just glanced over at my bookshelf and saw McKinsey’s Valuation, 4th edition — it was first published in 1990 — don’t you think after the stock market history of the last 6 years it was in need of updating? Of course not ALL books with long-term value are republished in editions. But some are — perhaps you did an extreme reading of this again.

    Now, before you proceed further down the standard blog path of inflating a conflicting view into an impugning of credibility, why don’t you put forth some counterexamples — with all due respect, I don’t find your blanket statements particularly credible either.

  20. 1. Ideas, markets, and technology are changing so rapidly that a static book is quickly outdated.

    novels, books of poetry, books that had a historical impact so that the original edition remains historically important, plays, unique artists books, books of philosophy. all those categories contain books that are never outdated though they may be specific to their time. often that specificity is what makes them of value.

    notice that we’re talking about different categories of books. i hear what you’re saying and assumed you meant the kind of books to which you refer but you stated it in a much broader manner.

    2. Books with long-term value have always been republished as new “editions.”

    i didn’t get that you meant “some” books with long-term value. following your first statement i mistakenly read that as a blanket statement.

    but this would be my response with examples to what i thought you meant:
    i wish that were true but i think long-term profitability is what results in new editions plus a certain number of books that are reprinted by scholarly or nonprofit presses, often based on an editor’s desires. i have a wide ranging collection of post world war ii books that i consider to have long term value as a researcher as well as just someone who digs books but they have never been republished and will probably never be republished unless someone like me does it as a labor of love. and i am referring to books by major publishers as well as small presses.

    “before you proceed further down the standard blog path of inflating a conflicting view into an impugning of credibility”

    no need for that, bro. i’m rarely standard in any way though i understand your concern. i would have made the same critique before blogging existed. i just felt that you were impugning your own credibility with those statements. i think the kinds of books you use as examples fit your approach much better than certain other categories of books.

    On a side note, if you want to get a take on how supposedly outdated books are sometimes quite relevant in their original form to current views of technology and science, check out Bruno Latour and Michel Serres in Conversations on Science, Culture and Time. Serres is one of the great yet underrated thinkers of our time and Latour is no slouch.

  21. Oops, I said:
    “i just felt that you were impugning your own credibility with those statements.”

    I meant undermining.

  22. This is exactly what a number of ebook publishers in the online marketing space are doing, especially at higher price points. They are also selling seminars where they walk you through the material in the books and selling cd’s that are videos of the seminars.

  23. [...] » Yet another idea from Scott Karp: "a book is still an organized body of knowledge on a topic shaped by an author’s vision, perspective, and expertise — but it is also a living, breathing, adaptable entity, able to respond to its readers and incorporate new thinking (both from the author and from readers). So imagine: rather than buying a book, you subscribe to it: you get the current edition, access to reader-only forums (i.e. community) in which the author actively participates, and a “feed” of continuous content updates. If an author were committed to the topic, the book could be sold as an annual subscription … I’ll admit this idea needs a lot more baking — but I’m going to harness the power of blogging by throwing it out there and enlisting others to help flesh it out." [...]

  24. Publishing 2.0

    I love the subjetct matter, There is no doubt such a revolution is under way, but i doubt this will emerege out of a planned mission statement.

    Much more likely we will achieve publishing 2.0 through a series of very crude, irrelevant deciplines merging together.

    It’s already happening.

    things that will be a big part of publishing 2.0 are. Comics/ visuals and graphics.

    updated versions of books will be most useful in subjects such as tech training.
    those huge training manuals that only get read after the next version of an application is out.

    the great thing about a book though, is the quality is more or less gurentted due to the significant investment in time and money involved in producing one.

    lets keep on keeping on!

  25. I think we have the luxury of time to shake out these compromises, in the form of consumer adoption cycles. For the “iPod of books” to happen, stars have to align just right:

    — Publishers have to come to grips with rights management that is reasonable for consumers. I was in on the first round of “e-book mania” at the turn of the millennium, and six years later I have yet to see the big houses relent on their Draconian thinking. Until they do, I struggle to comprehend how they will manage in a world of frequently updated content and multiformat distribution.

    — The right device — a mix of readability, battery life, comfortable form factor, versatility and price — must emerge.

    — That right device must be the one that catches on, a la the iPod. It’s an unfortunate reality of the marketing world that the wrong device (just like a less authoritative, lower quality book) might be the one that people buy. Think VHS, EDTV or the Ford Pinto.

    — Companies in the physical book value chain will fight tooth and nail, and that fight will take time. I work in the newspaper industry. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that incumbents can’t stop innovation but they can slow down its adoption — especially if digitization of an industry leads to price destruction.

    I was an early adopter. I really liked my company’s old RCA eBook back in 2000. The current Sony generation is a world better than that old brick. I expect what emerges as the “iPod of books” to be much better still.

    And I can’t wait for the day that my kids (or someone’s kids, if this cycle takes more than a few years) can carry one little device to school instead of a posture-twisting 40 pound backpack full of hardcover texts.

    But the “book” consumer crowd is different from the “tunes” consumer crowd. Early adopters like me aren’t at the core of book-buying demographics. Skim off the tech-book and textbook users, and plenty of people who are delighted to fill their shelves with analog books — especially of the types that do not require frequent updates, such as novels — remain in the buying pool.

    This will take a while.

  26. Scott, I was hoping you’d follow up on my response to your response. Do you think I’m off base there or what?

    I agree that plenty of books would not only work in the format you’re describing but would be much better. I have an MLS and have worked briefly as a reference librarian and also look up all sorts of little things for my writing and I so wish all that kind of material was already taking the approach you’re into.

    Did I just get hung up on your phrasing or what?

    Part of why I jumped on it was that in the late 90s there was a big claim that all books would go electronic. I remember reading an Eastern European librarian’s plea on an email list to other librarians for help (which may have been more recently). Whoever the bigwig was in her country for this kind of thing (sorry it’s been awhile) had visited the States and been enthusiastically informed that all books were going electronic in the next few years. So he informed the state supported library that they could no longer use funds for physical books. She was desperate because there was so little available in certain fields.

    That’s one of many reasons I grow concerned when someone who could be as influential as you could be uses a generalization like the one I addressed.

  27. Clyde,

    Thanks for adding all of the great thinking and observations in fleshing out your comments. A few thoughts in response:

    Fiction and nonfiction are definitely apples and oranges — I was thinking strictly of nonfiction and should have made that clear.

    You’re take on editions is right — I think it would have been more accurate for me to observe that the convention of republishing new editions is familiar, if not widely enough used.

    As for Serres, that’s really philosophy, which fits with fiction/poetry in terms of timelessness.

    And you’re certainly right that hype about electronic books has been around for a long time, much to ill effect. But I do believe that the iPod of books really is on the horizon — it’s not going to destroy paper, anymore than the iPod has destroyed albums (yet) — but it is going to change the game completely.


    One possible answer to the rights management problem is to look to a subscription model rather than the one-time purchase model — you’re buying the right to continue to drink from the well.

    Tech and textbook will be the leading edge, and the rest of nonfiction will follow. Fiction will follow next for the mass market paperback crowd. The ability to have dozens (if not more) of content choices on hand in one device, as happened with the iPod, will overwhelm the habit of paper for most (but certainly not all) people.

    Back when portable DVD players first came out, no one could have imagined to the iPod. The iPod of books will be the same quantum leap from your old RCA eBook.

  28. Cool. Glad I didn’t totally alienate you with certain comments.

    Not to drag this out unnecessarily but Serres is actually both a philosopher and a historian of science and technology with an extensive background in math and an early career in the French Navy. He argues, for example, that certain literary works accurately describe nonlinear phenomena and that certain scientific texts from earlier periods are quite relevant also in relationship to nonlinear stuff like turbulent flows and so forth. I think he’ s still teaching at Stanford and I wish the tech geeks interested in that kind of thing would pick up on his existence.

    He only really explains this in the book of conversations with Latour. Otherwise all his work appears to be poetic literary criticism or historical work related to science and technology.

    So I’m a fan but he doesn’t really undermine the main points you’re making, though he does raise some issues. I just want everybody to check him out!

  29. [...] : Scott Karp imagines book publishing 2.0 (or maybe that’s 3.0 by now). [...]

  30. [...] How to make money by publishing books online will be figured out by someone who is more enteprising. Scott has got some ideas though. [...]

  31. Enhanced Books…

    While digging a bit deeper around the NYT article post I made the other day, I came across an even better thread on the Publishing 2.0 blog. Be sure to read all the comments. The one that hits closest to…

  32. Great post – that’s why I wanted to link to it!

    Manual trackback: http://managetochange.typepad.com/main/2006/06/are_books_dead_.html

  33. I have been trawling these waters for some time. I would appreciate feedback to the Processed Book Project, which can be found at http://prosaix.com/pbos. See the project essay (“The Processed Book Project”) and the original paper (“The Processed Book”).

  34. [...] http://publishing2.com/2006/06/05/book-publishing-20-books-as-continuously-updated-idea-platforms/ [...]

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