Most of us know an ebook is a digital file that can be read by devices such as iPads and Kindles. There are many different kinds of ebook formats and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some ebooks made to be viewed on the Kindle, others on the iPad, still others for reading online via a web browser. Kindle, for example, works with the MOBI format, whereas the iPad-iBook reader works only with iBook or EPUB formats. EPUB is one of the most popular formats because no one owns the format as compared to, for example, the way Microsoft owns the .doc format. Anyone can produce an EPUB without having to pay royalties. That makes EPUB a popular type of ebook format for publishers.
What is important here, is that many of these ebook formats share a lot in common with the web page. EPUB, for example, in the words of the International Digital Publishing Forum (the group taking responsibility for managing the development of the format), is:
“…a means of representing […] Web content — including XHTML, CSS, SVG, images, and other resources — for distribution in a single-file format.”
EPUB pages are made of HTML, the language of the web. EPUB pages are web pages.
The change of carrier medium for books, from paper to HTML, changes everything. Publishers appear to believe that just the format of the book (from paper to electronic) and the distribution process (from bricks and mortar to net) have changed. These are enormous changes indeed, but what about everything else? What about the rest of the book’s life?
To get an understanding of how this transformation of the content medium from paper to web page affects things, let’s first take a bird’s eye view of the current life cycle of a book. Painting it with broad strokes, the book life cycle (still) looks something like this:
- Text Production – production of the book. Most recently it has become a very linear workflow with text originating with authors. Editors, proofreaders, translators, researchers, and designers are all involved with very clearly demarcated roles.
- Object Production – the creation (typesetting, printing, binding) of the paper book
- Market – distribution to retail outlets and sales through those outlets
- Life – after being read, the book becomes an archive. The shelf life is connected to the value to the reader or owner (shelf life).
Digital networks and digital books, of course, have changed how publishers work. The disruption, however, has really been limited to the steps of object production and marketing strategies. Many publishers of genres from fiction to scientific journals do not have a workflow for the production of electronic books, they simply send their MS Word files to an outsourced business for transformation to EPUB. In their world, paper books are easier to produce than digital books. Even so, much has changed and can be captured in brief by the following:
- Text Production – no change
- Object Production – electronic books added
- Market – online sales, devices
- Life – no change or reduced (shelf or digital equivalent)
Arguably, the life of a book has been reduced, as many book formats cannot be transferred from one device to another and so have only limited visibility. Books, for example, produced in Apple’s iBook Author do not follow the standard way of making EPUB and are often unreadable on non-Apple devices. This is changing a little with developments such as the Kindle app which can be installed on iPads and computers for reading books purchased on Amazon. However, there are still many issues.
What is most astonishing to me, is that there has been little or no innovation regarding the production of books. Sure paper and pen were replaced by typewriter and then a computer and word processing software. But these technologies largely support the same methods for making books. In 2013, many years into the digital media and digital network world, there is little change. We are still producing books as we did back in the days of handwritten manuscripts, except these days we can email the file to someone to check. It is as if the digital network is just a faster postal service.
There are some notable exceptions. For example, OReilly is experimenting with some networked and ‘agile’ (fast-moving and iterative) production processes, but overall, the innovation and change happening now within the publishing industry is constrained to everything that happens after the text is produced and before the book is archived by the reader.
As it happens, this is about as far as the publishing industry can innovate. They are too heavily invested in production workflows, tools and methodologies to change the production process. In addition, it is too difficult for publishers to consider changing as there is the fear such disruption could break things on a much deeper level. Single author works, for example, are an important part of reputation-based sales and you can’t change one without the other.
In many ways, it is simply bad business and logistically too hard for publishers to innovate around production as it cannibalises their existing models. At the other end of the cycle, publishers do not seem to be interested in the life of the book beyond purchase, except where they retard life expectancy with DRM, delete the book file or link from your device, or surveil your reading habits in order to offer the next book for your consumption. After reading the book on your reader, it sits there as it would on a bookshelf.
Ironically for the publishing industry, the biggest opportunities are in the areas they are not addressing. The new publishing world, which might be populated largely by those individuals, collectives, ‘groupings’ and organisations that are currently not publishers, looks like this:
- Text Production – collaboration and social production
- Object Production – paper and electronic books
- Market – distribution to retail, sales, online sales, devices
- Life – living and growing books
The beginning of this cycle and the end are intimately linked. The conditions for collaboration have a lot in common with the conditions for extending the life of books.
The life cycle of a book is changing because books are web pages and production is coming online. Collaborative production is one very rich opportunity and it looks very unlike linear production models. In intensive collaborative or open collaborative environments, roles are concurrent and fluid. It is possible for one person to write original material, borrow material, improve another’s material, then proofread others’ work, edit and comment on design. This is all possible because the production environment is the browser. At its most intense, collaborative browser-based production becomes transparent. Anyone can look at the evolution of the book and witness the changes as they occur. In this kind of process, discourse becomes necessary and collaborators open up rich and valuable discussions which become part of the book. The book becomes a product of collective discourse and the discourse is often as rewarding as the book that comes from the process.
These conditions often lead to the book having an extended life as communities of collaborators form around the book and carry the book forward, amending and improving the work. The life of the work is then connected to the health of the connected networked community.
As the new production and carrier medium for books, HTML transforms everything. It leads naturally to collaborative production and the extended life of content. However, most of these transformations are occurring outside the existing publishing industry, leaving the future of publishing in your hands.
[Produced sometime in 2011]