Don Linn has a very good two-part post on what people are talking about with regard to the current state of publishing. Part One is a list of distractors — topics of marginal importance that occupy so much time and attention (e.g., enhanced ebooks); Part Two lists the items he thinks should be at the top of the list (e.g., stem-to-stern workflow reorganization). It’s a good list (both parts), which I recommend to everyone.
I know Linn professionally, and was struck by the note of exasperation that creeps into the posts. He is not alone! Linn’s is an attempt by an experienced executive to get everybody at the meeting to stop talking among themselves and stick to the agenda. The problem, of course (as Linn knows), is that there is no meeting — no one is in charge. We should all be thinking about setting the agenda.
The orientation of Linn’s list is toward trade books — trade ebooks especially — which caused me to wonder how it would be modified or expanded for scholarly publishing — though here it must be said that most of the items on Linn’s list travel well to most segments of publishing. But, yes, there are exceptions: enhanced e-books, for example, are a costly non-scalable activity for the trade book publisher, but the publisher of, say, medical journals will soon be incorporating videos of actual procedures and interactive animations for clinical training. One segment’s distractor is another segment’s desideratum.
So here is an annex to Linn’s post for scholarly publishers. This is an incomplete list; it consists of the reflections of the moment. I will be very interested in comments that expand (or shrink) this list. Someone has to set the agenda, but no one is in charge.
I will forgo part one (the distractors), though, as it only calls more attention to them. Besides, no matter how many times you point out that open access is a marginal issue, that the clamor for collaboration between university presses and academic libraries comes up empty, or that mass digitization projects of little-read books and documents will yield little-read mass digitized databases, the party continues unabated. It will continue until programs of greater magnitude become central, such as the development of direct-to-consumer subscription services and the creation of new content types expressly for machine consumption.
1. Metadata. Linn gets at this one, too, under the “discovery” heading. The “metadata movement” is beginning to get some momentum, but the importance of this topic is still not fully appreciated. In an analog world there are so many cues about the nature and content of a publication (we can hold a journal in our hands) that we tend not to focus on how carefully crafted all the marketing messages are: the heft, the brand, the abstracts and table of contents, etc. In the online world there is only metadata; Amazon is the world’s biggest metadata machine. There is a mistaken notion floating about that full-text search (a great development) solves all discovery problems, but that ignores the important steps that take place before discovery, the creation of demand by the publisher. Markets are created, not served, and metadata is the tool of the creator.
2. The “author-pays” business model. This is distinct from open access, with which it is usually paired. The importance of this model, pioneered by BioMed Central and now widely imitated, is that it taps a new revenue source, authors, and thus is a positive response to the challenge of library bypass. At this time no one knows how far author-pays can go. Can it handle long-form texts, aka books, as well as journal articles? Will there by a great number of such services, or will the author-pays model lead to greater industry consolidation, as the broad-based services of PLoS ONE seem to imply? Also of interest is how new revenue opportunities can be layered on top of the base texts.
3. Mobile computing. While just about every knowledge worker now carries or will soon be carrying a smartphone, downloading apps and engaging on the run with email, photo-sharing, and texting, most scholarly communications is rooted in Web 0.5, where a fixed text is created in a PDF, mounted on a Web server, downloaded on a personal computer, and then printed out to be read. Recently I sat through a presentation on a survey of librarians about their preferences for ebooks, which included a desire for digital texts to be downloadable, not simply streamed. This reveals an urge to hold onto the early PC (Web 0.5) model even as Cloud computing is emerging as the dominant paradigm. This is the problem with surveys: they have difficulty looking forward. Publishers have to begin to assume that the primary mode of information consumption will be through a mobile device.
4. Sensor publishing. With the growth of the mobile phone industry, more and more sensors are being built into mobile devices, tracking movement, geography, and, soon, much, much more: heat, light, ambient sound, radiation, etc. Data is then aggregated across a wide user base (automated crowdsourcing), analyzed for patterns, and then published as reports. Thus a high-schooler in Peoria becomes a host for a data-collection device that feeds research activity in Cambridge, which then is packaged and published in Santa Clara. How many publishers are in discussions with AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint to develop passive data-collection services for sensor publishing?
5. Text mining. While the development of massive databases is unlikely to lead to more human consumption of text, machines are a different matter; their appetites are unlimited. Text mining will evolve in stages, beginning with seeking patterns in preexisting text, but later creating new publishing opportunities as texts are developed precisely to allow machines to manipulate them. If I were a young fellow with an entrepreneurial itch, this is where I would place my bet. There is an inexorable progression: from regional markets to national, from national to global, and from the global human market to the market among machines.
6. The face-down publishing paradigm. This is the connector between mobile computing (viewed face down, as you look at a screen) and back-end data-analytic services. Currently publishers are looking at new devices as a way to display the same texts that were previously distributed for print. But with mobile devices, ubiquitious broadband, and Cloud services, texts can become dynamic and be linked by geolocation. All publishing will move in this direction eventually, but the infrastructure is only now being put in place. Start now with a small, focused project to learn the implications of what could be mainstream within the working lifetimes of most industry managers today.
7. Direct-to-consumer marketing of subscription services. As noted above, publishers increasingly will be developing means to sell directly to end-users. Part of the reason for this is the need to work around the problems with library budgets, but another aspect is the growing need to get end-user usage data in real-time, which working through intermediaries (libraries, ProQuest, Project Muse, Amazon) does not permit. Such data can be used to develop new marketing programs and to influence editorial programs. A corollary to this is that publishers will have to develop their own Cloud infrastructure to manage these services or find reliable third-parties to provide them–the next generation of Highwires, Atypons, and Silverchairs.
8. Patron-driven acquisition (PDA). As libraries begin to turn over some part of their materials budgets to PDA programs, there will be a gradual restructuring of the overall supply chain. The implications for publishers are not entirely clear at this time (and are not likely to be entirely negative, as many suppose), but PDA is no longer a theoretical topic. Today’s partners in the value chain may become increasingly irrelevant.
9. Artisan publishing. The key issues for the publishing industry are not only about technology but also about enduring themes of editorial selection, craftsmanship, and exquisite communications among small groups of fellow travellers. In the campy sci-fi TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” crew members on a spaceship express their feelings for one another by giving gifts of printed books. Yes, time travel, human-like robots, and the world of Gutenberg and Maxwell Perkins intermixed. For every new and vaunted technological service, there will be a dozen small projects, led by one or two individuals, that will work in the publishing equivalent of French-pressed coffee and flowers in a cafe arranged just so. This is a growth opportunity for all of us.
As I wrote this, other “key” issues sprang to mind, but how central could they be if their sheer number militated against effective action? (I stopped at nine because I did not want the rhetorical effect of “The Ten Key Issues for Scholarly Publishing.”) We need both more ideas and fewer. I will be reading the comments to this post carefully to find out who really is in charge.