The Changing Nature of Publishers: Quick Reaction

In this interview with Mac Slocum, Tim O’Reilly says the following about how changes in digital and print book “form” affect the publishing business:

Changes in form have significantly affected O’Reilly’s publishing business by providing new kinds of competition. Our bestsellers are now tutorial books. The old reference-based books have been cannibalized by the web and search. This is why we try to define Safari Books Online as a library of content that people can search across. Reference material now carries an expectation that it will be searchable. And our tutorial books are increasingly challenged by other forms of tutorial, such as screencasts and online video.

From my perspective reference books have not been “cannibalized by the web and search”. Free books placed online are impressive search magnets and they can generate goodwill, traffic, and sales leads for projects and companies that understand how to take advantage of them. This statement, in particular, shows that publishers are still focused on the existing economic model that users will pay for each individual unit.

Reference material does carry an expectation that “it will be searchable”, but I would extend that statement with a few words to “Reference material for an open source project now carries an expectation that it will be searchable by Google and that it will be free.” While Safari is a great product for those that can afford it, it is a paywall that reduces a book’s reach. Even though I’m still a big fan of O’Reilly books, for an open source project looking to introduce a new technology, a price tag attached to core documentation limits your initial audience size.

I think there’s a growing gap between paid content and free content. Fast forward a few years, and I think you’ll see a world in which free, sponsored content from channels like DZone and InfoQ start to define the space of free, online reference books. These companies still haven’t jumping into the full-length book publishing business, but I think it is the next logical step in addition to more and more open soruce companies starting to own the publishing process first before approaching traditional “publishers”. There is a lot of money to be made publishing free content, but you won’t find it if you are looking at the price tag of an individual book.