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It’s long been an assumption that tried-and-true publishing business models might not retain their viability in an increasingly collaborative and tech-centric information environment. But as these new layers emerge, can the central aspect on which they depend — namely, content — survive?

In a recent blog piece about Aus-e-Lit, Roger Osbourne identifies apparent contradictions between individual reward models and an increasing emphasis in utilities like Aus-e-Lit on collaborative annotation:

The ANNOTATION TOOL will allow users to enhance AustLit records by adding information about a work or an author that would not normally be indexed by AustLit. For instance, information about the role of a literary agent in the publication of a particular edition could be added, providing a foundation for generating networks of influence in the publishing industry. If we can imagine scores of independent researchers contributing such information, cultural fields could emerge from the contributed data that tell us more about the publishing industry than we currently know.

The detriment, he says, is that all of this innovation has pushed the boundaries of existing publishing, copyright, and compensation models. This may, in fact, only be the tip of the iceberg — the point at which traditional publishing business assumptions are being Zamboni’d by the blade and squeegee of technological change.

Certainly, we’re aware that dynamic posting, annotation, discussion and elaboration, revision, and user ranking are utilized in a rapidly growing number of information environments. And it’s no surprise that commercial business models and individual compensation structures have struggled to keep pace with the rapid adoption of these collaborative tools for content creation.

As publishers migrate towards less-defined content sales units, they are also encountering new challenges relative to contributor compensation.

For example, a book author receives a negotiated, ongoing royalty based on sales of the book unit, whereas if the same content is mashed-up in a database, the author may be paid a licensing fee based on usage or representation of bytes of content in the larger digital repository.

Compensation structures are unlikely to deliver the same uniform and consistent royalty payments to authors and contributors in the new paradigms. The worth of an individual contribution will be diluted by the addition of new materials, unless complex algorithms are developed to assign relative value, based on user perception of the relative import of one piece of contributed content versus another.

And there is a question of motivation. Will individuals be equally motivated to be part of these larger projects with less direct revenue and without their name visible on a book cover (not to mention the fact that explaining how payments have been calculated will be challenging enough – what’s a byte?).

There’s also a shift in what is being commercialized. Is it content or eyeballs? Osbourne notes that the user data and folksonomic tags compiled on the back-end of socially networked information platforms will support further analysis, with great potential learning about systemic relationships, user behavior, and user preferences. We’ve already seen innumerable examples of this on the Web, where companies make content and tools freely available in order to leverage the subscriber access and usage information obtained on the back-end.

John Wilbanks spoke about this at last year’s SSP IN meeting:

When a layer gets commoditized, value is created through proprietary services in adjacent layers.  Clay Christensen

But adjacency is relative — there has to be a central source to support the adjacent elements. How publishers will continue to motivate contributors of this central activity while compensation and motivation move to the adjacent layer will provide many challenges.

There’s a delicate balance to strike that calls for a clear understanding of what is most valuable to others and what is needed to make that relationship work. Content is no longer king — it’s being demoted to a functional role, its value shifting to the bicameral rule of access and utility. Collaboration is becoming a must-have rather than a nice-to-have. This requires a very different dialogue with stakeholders about what is needed to sustain the necessary contributions.

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