A few years ago, at a meeting with another publisher, I talked about how I was trying to treat publishing more as a software exercise than a hardware exercise — instead of focusing on books and journals as fixed information hardware (like another pressing of a CD used to be), treat it as an integrated version of a book, susceptible to revision with the potential for flexible deployments into specialized environments.
Now, O’Reilly Media has achieved that very admirable feat, and with a very appropriate genre of book — the software manual. Called, “Learning Rails: Live Edition,” the book’s author updates it regularly as fixes and changes occur, and purchasers are notified when major updates are available:
O’Reilly Live Edition books give you access to updates to topics in between editions of a book. A Live Edition is an electronic version of the book that is updated when there is a significant change to the software or technology the book covers, keeping you on top of .X releases or major fixes.
Doing this with a software manual is natural, as the book’s update path matches the software’s update path. But the concept can be applied to many things — a “live edition” of the Guinness Book of World Records 2010 might make sense and increase loyalty.
O’Reilly is starting with electronic files for its updates, but is also contemplating print on demand solutions.
This approach is somewhat familiar to journal publishers, but we still rely on an old-fashioned method (in most cases) of issuing errata and corrections and publishing letters to the editor in order to update reports. If journals were to adopt an approach like this, they would become hybridized reference works publishers. And is that something they should consider?
Errata and fixes are sources of shame to journal publishers, but should they be? Why not embrace the preponderance of evidence that no editor, editorial process, or human intelligence is sufficient to catch all errors, know all angles, and encompass all knowledge of a subject? Why not do what O’Reilly is doing — making a liability into an asset? Their entry on the Tools of Change blog puts it well:
Live Editions follow a different process. Instead of a long wait for a slow new edition, the model is “release early and often.” Authors can quickly respond to reader feedback and errata immediately, rather than filing it away for a reprint or a new edition.
Technical publishers have been doing their own version of this for years, mainly by keeping updated PDFs on their Web sites. But the integration and formalization of the O’Reilly approach takes it a step further. By acquiring customer email addresses, O’Reilly is able to reach out to readers. And by turning each author into an edition shepherd, O’Reilly is keeping expertise on the job for longer.
Aside from any technical or editorial achievement here, there is the marketing achievement — the “live editions” moniker is pretty effective, and O’Reilly is building on its reputation as an innovative publishing company. Smart.
There are definitely implications for copyright, reprints, distributors, and so forth. But, overall, this seems like a nice way to make books better, and potentially a reason for journal publishers to reflect on their own hesitancy to become “live edition” publishers.
It’s a small advance, but an interesting one. Are integrated editions that extend the useful lives of books a good way to add value and entice readers?