In the time it takes an infant to become a kindergartner, blogging software has grown from backwater platforms for shame-ridden indulgences to some of today’s most vibrant publishing infrastructures purveying some of our society’s most compelling content. With projections that the Huffington Post may soon be larger than the New York Times (projections that, while mathematically unlikely, still have a striking plausibility to them), blogs have begun to fulfill their potential. Along the way, blogging software has become extremely sophisticated.
What’s perhaps most interesting is that blogging software has begun to encroach on other platforms and practices, and in some surprising ways.
WordPress powers an amazing variety of media solutions, from the Scholarly Kitchen to the New York Times to areas of CNN, People magazine, and other major media properties.
Part of the appeal of blogging software is that a lot can be done with it quickly. At the New England Journal of Medicine, two time-sensitive centers — one for H1N1 and another for health care reform — were started in days rather than months using WordPress, and each supports tens of thousands of users without a problem.
Like most blogging platforms, WordPress has an amazing platform architecture that allows for a public version for immense scalability, private versions for deep customizability, and seamless upgrades for endless viability.
The Huffington Post is powered by another blog platform, Movable Type, which has its own suite of hot properties (President Obama, Britney Spears, kottke.org, and others use it). Movable Type lists itself as “Your All-in-One Social Publishing Platform: Create beautiful websites and blogs; a simple and powerful content management system; build a vibrant social network.”
If “disruption” is defined as “making familiar things in new, cheaper, more efficient ways while kicking incumbents out,” blogging platforms like WordPress and Movable Type are potentially very disruptive for expensive content management, content rendering, and online publishing platforms.
Both WordPress and Movable Type offer social media solutions. They offer polling. They offer video and audio integrations.
But that may just be the beginning.
Now, WordPress is apparently set to disrupt books, with an academic group building a platform called Book Oven writing on the O’Reilly Tools of Change blog that WordPress can serve as an ideal book publishing platform. It already possesses the following commendable features:
- it is a familiar and comfortable tool to most writers and publishers who are at all engaged online
- it is a stable platform that can handle just about any scale of traffic you can throw at it
- it is open source
- through its plugin architecture, it is infinitely extensible
- through its template architecture, it is infinitely stylable
- through WordPress Mu, it is infinitely scalable
- it has a huge, world-wide community of committed developers
- existing plugins and plugin suites already achieve much of what would be wanted in a WordPress-based book publishing system.
The Book Oven team is planning on writing plugins for WordPress to complete their vision for using WordPress as a platform, and the path seems clear and unencumbered. It will just take a little cleverness and elbow grease.
Another new venture, LeanPub, purports to use WordPress so that blog owners can publish their blogs as books, or write books using WordPress at LeanPub and then publish them. I’ve tried LeanPub. I uploaded the Scholarly Kitchen’s posts through mid-May 2010 into it. The resulting book . . . well, it doesn’t exist. I tried uploading the blog twice, and no dice. Nothing ever came out of their conversion engine. Nevertheless, the site seems to be about 80% right, and there’s no reason to think it won’t work at some point. (Remember, part of disruption is that things like this get dismissed too easily, and then incumbents forget they’re coming.)
We’re undergoing a revolution in software, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and distribution which is so profound it makes your head spin. Barriers of scarcity are disappearing at the press, in distribution, and elsewhere. The supply chain for ultra-niche publishing on a meaningful scale is nearly complete. And the software platforms needed to do these things — once proprietary, expensive, and complex — are becoming open, free, and easy to use.
How can you compete with that?
Non-profit and scholarly publishers need to think carefully about their platform and content management choices. Financial viability in online publishing will largely be about mitigating fixed costs. Blogging platforms offer a powerful option for publishers seeking to shed expensive and over-engineered solutions.
They also offer these advantages to new entrants like BookOven.
Technology won’t be a differentiator for long. If I were running a company catering to scholarly publishers’ software or distribution needs — whether for books or journals — I’d make sure my services and marketing capabilities are up to snuff. Otherwise, I might feel like my doom is just a plug-in away.