It is one thing for a publisher to be on the Web, another thing entirely to be of the Web.
This thought was prompted by the accidental confluence of two items. First, recently I had an opportunity to talk to a journals publisher who had made a deep commitment to publishing online. But I heard a whispering in the background: “What is this Web thing anyway? We are prepared to put everything we have online, but why is doing this on the Web supposed to be different?” A legacy publisher peeks out from behind a firewall and puts a cautious toe onto the Web, but a new company jumps in head first. If the legacy company is a good one, the timidity is all the greater.
The second item was that I happened to be rereading Brian O’Leary’s excellent piece “Context First,” which argues that publishers make a big mistake when they focus on the final form (the container) their publications will take, as doing so strips the work of its context: the network of relationships with other content, with commentators and reviewers, with the world of tweets and blogs, and even from earlier or adapted versions of the same work. The importance of context is discovery, as the network of information drives up search engine rank and provides valuable clues for readers to find a work. In an information environment of superabundance, discovery is everything. Putting one toe onto the Web means you won’t get discovered, won’t get read, won’t get bought.
O’Leary’s article is astute, and grows in importance with rereading.
I was rereading the O’Leary piece because of a related piece (a contextual post, you could say) by the always-lively Eric Hellman, who is well known to academic librarians. Hellman takes issue with O’Leary, noting that the container known as “a book” has a quality of timelessness that the dynamic nature of O’Leary’s “context” does not take into account. I know both men professionally and hope never to have to compare my SAT scores with either of them, but on this particular dispute, I think Hellman has it wrong.
The whole question of books (or any content; we could say “texts”) and their containers is a vexed one. Hellman appears to be anxious about the loss of the canonical work, but embedding a work into a network of cross-references doesn’t diminish it. I live at 613 Spring Street, and my property loses no integrity by virtue of the fact that my neighbor lives at 601.
As for timelessness, well, yes — immersed in a text, time does indeed seem to stand still, but the fact that a text is connected to other texts does not mean that we focus on the entire network at every moment. Nor does the fixed nature of a text change because someone is pointing to it. Hellman appears to be confusing a publishing strategy of “context first” with the experience of reading. Publishing is not about reading or readers; it is about talking and enticing other media to increase the volume of your own voice. Do unto others such that they will do even better unto you.
I happen to be highly sympathetic to the situations of established publishers and don’t subscribe to the “tear down the walls” perspective of many critics of the publishing industry — and this because I have a businessman’s respect for cash flow — but the Web is not a newfangled printing technology. It is also a suite of enabling tools that makes some actions more probable than others, just as a box of chocolates in your home is more likely to be eaten than one left on a shelf at a shop downtown.
For someone operating a new publishing company, this may be a no-brainer, as no one today would realistically start a company with the print paradigm in mind. A new company would be born of and on the Web; its products would be conceived with all the “affordances”– the inherent qualities — of the Web in mind, from sharing to linking to published APIs. A new company would do this as a matter of course because the challenge for any publisher, old or new, is to bring attention to its products. A legacy publisher can command attention by virtue of its established base — of authors, sales accounts, access to media, its balance sheet (marketing costs money), and its brand. But a new publisher has few or none of these things. What it has is the impulse to scream for attention, and on the Web, screaming in social media is the stock in trade.
How then can a legacy publisher participate more fully in what is sometimes called the Web’s “conversation” the better to augment the visibility — and sale — of its own products? The key may be to take a tip from the entertainment industry, which has long and profitable experience in making its properties available across a network of media types.
Take a feature film — a Star Wars, say — for example. The feature film is launched, is successful. It in turn inspires two follow-on movies, which are then succeeded paradoxically by three prequels. Meanwhile, the merchandising division is going crazy with Darth Vader toys and spaceships; I think of the millions of parents in America who experienced the crunch-crunch of plastic under the Christmas tree. The brand was then extended to television (which supported more merchandise sales) and even books. If you develop the brand creatively, its extension is limited only by your imagination. Or perhaps beyond one’s imagination — it still astonishes me to realize that one such Hollywood brand was able to extend itself all the way to the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento.
Scholarly publishers have been unevenly focused on managing their brands. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they have been narrowly focused on protecting their brands. A networked branding strategy is highly protective of a brand as it is extended to new — and linked — products and services, but it is perhaps not militaristically protective of the content that is an expression of the brand. There are instances where business opportunities are explored as investigations into “repurposing” such as selling individual chapters of books or collecting articles into coursepacks, but these products — all part of the network of connections — are not always conspicuously branded. As a consequence, some of the reverberating benefits of network communications are lost. And without the extension of the brand, it becomes harder to protect both the content and the context.
As scholarly communications begins to move into new areas — into author-pays open access repositories, into linked data, into ebooks with embedded video, into short-form works — the argument for thinking of each product on its own, as a stand-alone product, diminishes. The strategy for maintaining economic control of the various products and services as they participate fully in Web interactions is to assert the brand everywhere, creating a marketing network that parallels the underlying technical network of the Internet.