A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future
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July-August 2008 Volume 42, No. 4

By Patrick Tucker
Senior Editor

It’s a snowy February Monday in midtown Manhattan. Publishing magnate and tech guru Tim O’Reilly’s “Tools of Change” conference has just opened at a Marriott off Broadway. The timing is fortunate; publishers HarperCollins and Random House have just announced that they will be offering more book content online and au gratis. The affable O’Reilly—who has been urging publishers to go digital since the early eighties—refuses to gloat (much). “They weren’t even trying to keep electronic copies [of manuscripts],” recalls O’Reilly. “You look at these announcements today, they seem too little too late,... but it’s allowing them to start innovating, to become part of the technology process.”

 “Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t have listened,” says Sara Domville, president of F+W Publications book division. “They’ll listen now.”

 As the publisher of an extremely popular series of computer manuals, O’Reilly is a bright star in a field of drab. Dubbed the “guru of the participation age” by Steven Levy in a 2005 Wired profile and a “graying hippie” with a “hostility toward traditional media” by author Andrew Keen, O’Reilly makes millions of dollars promoting open source at his conferences and selling do-it-yourself know-how to anyone who browses the computer aisle at Barnes and Noble. His message to the world’s publishing elite exudes a Wizard of Oz simplicity: Give more product away on your Web site, thereby attracting more people to sell on something pricier than a book— like a bunch of books or a conference ticket. The approach works for him at least. Some 900 publishing execs from Simon and Schuster, Norton, etc., have paid $1,100 apiece (on average) to learn how to give content away.

“I think I’m optimistic,” said Sonia Nash of Random House, echoing the uncertainty of the attendees, editors, and publishers from around the world eager to find some reason to feel good about the future of what they sell.

Reading, Writing, and Publishing In the 21st Century

For people who make their living selling words to readers—and indeed for readers themselves—these are times of upheaval. The information technology revolution has led to an explosion in textual content. More people are engaging in more conversations, sharing more opinions, learning more, and learning faster than anyone could have imagined just a few decades ago. The site Blogherald.com counted more than 100 million blogs as of October 2005. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 93% of U.S. teens aged 12–17 used the Internet in 2006; among them, 64% have created content, up from 57% in 2004. We’ve entered an era where the acts of thinking, writing, and to a certain extent publishing are indistinguishable, and where charging money for editorial content is becoming an ever trickier proposition. Book publishers, newspapers and magazines, writers, and readers are experiencing these same IT trends in very different ways.

For readers and the educated curious, the information revolution means immediate access to thousands of sources for minimal cost. It also means the opportunity to become a source, trustworthy or otherwise, and to share an opinion with the world the second the whim strikes to do so.

For many writers, particularly nonfiction writers, it means leaving newsrooms (often reluctantly) to join the online world of blogs, vlogs, and RSS feeds where the pace of news is accelerated, traditional journalism practice is routinely scoffed at, and the pay is modest at best. Even popular bloggers like Om Malik, senior writer for Business 2.0 magazine, report that the money from ad clicks related to their blog content is barely enough to cover the cost of blogging.  A recent New York Times article points out that, due to growing competition, many bloggers feel they have to copy, paste, and post almost 24 hours a day. Bloggers complain of sleep disorders and weight loss. Three tech bloggers have died in the last few months from maladies associated with work exhaustion.

For many magazine and newspaper publishers, the goal now is to transition into a more Web-focused business model quickly. For book publishers, the mission is to make an industry built on a fifteenth-century technology viable in the twenty-first century. That means reinventing the concept of the book for the digital age. Theirs* is perhaps the biggest challenge.

Many of the execs at the Tools of Change conference hope that O’Reilly can lead them to greener pastures. He's secured a permanent place in history for coining “Web 2.0,” shorthand for the user-driven Internet and the culture of snarky chat-room speak, scandalous celebrity photos, and YouTube flameups that goes with it. Kids today talk, breathe, and sweat Web 2.0. But are emoticon-laden screeds and homemade YouTube videos going to save “the book” or just further our cultural transition away from print literacy?

Is O’Reilly—unwittingly perhaps— selling a Trojan horse?

Continue on to pages 1, 2, 3.


[Originally "there's" typo corrected 7/8/08]