Wednesday, 16 May 2012

When Developers Become Publishers

For almost 20 years now, we've been building websites and applications for libraries and museums. Fairly heavy code too, some of it. We won the British Computer Society, Best Web Technology Award a couple of years back for some 3D C# craziness.

So, when ebooks emerged we took a look and jumped in, leveraging our clients existing assets to generate a little revenue for them and us. At the same time, I started reading lots of blogs and articles, as I knew nothing about publishing, either the industry or best practice. I found myself in a very alien world. Undoubtedly lots of very smart people battling with sudden tectonic shifts. But some things that I took for granted seemed to complete blindside or outrage publishers and authors. So here are some of the glaring differences I've seen as we've tried to straddle what are (for now) two industries.

1. Change is normal. The practice of publishing doesn't seem to have changed much from Wynkyn de Worde to the present day. From the outside, change (until recently) seems slow. Even meetings are scheduled months ahead. In software development, change is very rapid. A year ago Flash was the default choice for rich internet applications. Now it's being shunned by all and sundry. The iPad turns up and everyone needs an app. As an industry, you need flexibility built in, as well as good antennae telling you what's coming next. As publishing and software development merge, publishers need to be able to react fast.

2. Expect conflict. Right back from when Netscape was battling with IE, we've had to deal with conflict. Code something for one browser, and it won't necessarily look good in another. Build a Flash version, and you'll likely need an HTML version for disability-compliance. Build a regular site, and you'll need a mobile version too (although these are now conflating). I hear regular cries of "when will there be one ebook standard?". I can guess at "never", and I know that developers accept this as just the way it is. Those late nights in the studio with take-out pizza? Testing and bug-fixing on all those platforms.

3. The code isn't hard. The codebase that makes up ebooks is not hard. Javascript, CSS, XHTML etc are pretty basic tools. Finding developers who are competent is a whole lot easier than finding good Objective-C people to code your next app.

4. International Rights. Coming from software, international rights variations for ebooks seem like a piece of legacy nonsense. I can release an app into the wild, why not an ebook? If someone can strip the DRM and mail an ebook to their friend on another continent, why can't I just sell them a book?

5. It's the beginning of the end, or maybe the end of the beginning. Either way, it's early days. Publishers are still finding out whether apps work, what the best price points are for ebooks, how to market them, what sort of sales volumes to expect from each platform and are still defining workflows. Me, I'm still waiting on epub3 adoption, the Kindle Fire, Nook and KF8 formats to arrive in Europe (we're over here, turn right at New York and keep going till you hit Ireland...), Apple to fix discoverability and the secret of a really good flat white. At this stage in proceedings, I expect things to be messy. And they are. In web terms we're at about 1995.

6. Disintermediation happens.There are still lots of web design agencies out there, but since the advent of Blogger and Wordpress, many individuals and companies have cut them out of the loop and just built their own web presence. Wordpress now powers 22% of all new domain registrations. It may not be as good as a bespoke site, but it isn't £30,000 either. As the tools emerge to create and market ebooks, writers of all sorts will seek to cut out middlemen. iBooks Author is the beginning of this, but expect something similar from the Microsoft/Nook deal.

7. Users decide. If a website or blog or Facebook page goes up, there's no quality control or screening from a third party. It's success or failure is determined by the community, and it's all there in black and white in the log files. Traditional publishing moves the gatekeeping upstream ("We really liked the manuscript, but..."). eBooks are undoubtedly going the way of the web. People will publish books because they can, and the world will decide. There's an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review stating that Amazon reader reviews are likely as good as professional reviews. If that's the case, then they're probably, in aggregate, as good as publisher's opinions.

So, after 9 months or so, I still don't know much about traditional publishing. But the interesting thing is, I may not need to.