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 Ideas, markets, and technology are changing so rapidly that a static book is quickly outdated.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

  • Joe

    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").

  • Great post - that's why I wanted to link to it!

    Manual trackback: http://managetochange.typepad....

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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.

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