The Book Publishing Problem
The traditional dead-tree book publishing industry has had a long and successful run. Starting from the very early days of mankind, wherein books were written on parchments, to the Tang Dynasty in China that published the first book, to Johannes Gutenberg and the movable type, to more recent (and popular) publishers, there really has been no real replacement for the printed word. The publishing industry has churned out everything from novels, to travelogues, to scientific textbooks, to cookbooks, yellow pages and religious texts.
Until recently the process of publication was automatic and well understood – have an interested author write something, push the written verbiage through the editorial machinery and out comes a shiny book, all ready to publish, print and push on the racks of bookstores. When e-Books first came into vogue, mainly due to the advances in the computing industry (iPads and other such devices), they were thought of as mere extensions of traditional books. Publishers often thought of e-Books as simply an alternative format of publication to supplement the dead-tree version.
However, time has come to re-think book publication in the light of the advent of digital platforms of publication. There are many issues here, but most importantly that, writing books is a long and difficult process and can easily take many months. There is a good chance that the content of the book is obsolete before the book hits the shelves. This is even more likely if the subject of the book is an in-vogue technical topic with a small half-life. And herein lies half the problem – the book for such a topic needs to be available and ready when the demand is at its peak and not at the tail end of the cycle when the demand has tapered off. So, books rarely get written on current technologies, wherein the demand may be short-lived, but is really high. Most books are written on technologies, which survive for a couple of years, until which it is no longer “hot” but just commodity and good information on that topic is already available on the web. Additionally, there are technical problems (most of which are being solved in one way or the other), regarding the multiple formats (pdf, epub, mobi etc.) and platforms for the ebooks.
So, to summarize, here are some questions for a eBook publisher:
- Which books to write? What topics? How to reduce the feedback cycle between “demand for a topic” and “writing a book on that topic”?
- Which platforms to use to publish it? How to “write once, publish everywhere” with minimal effort?
- The web provides a natural cross-reference for all content that is published on it. There is no such equivalent available for eBooks. Does it make sense to segregate and cross-link content of eBooks using some such similar technology so as to provide a richer content to the end-user? eg – A “link” in an eBook can refer to a section in another eBook, which the reader can buy either independently (i.e. just that section), or wholly (i.e. the entire eBook)?
- Is there a good way of resolving (or a better way of monetizing) the “content farm” problem? Today there is an entire industry behind black hat SEO. The web is frequently abused by unethical companies that squat domains and create nonsensical content (frequently copying from Wikipedia and other sources) to satisfy search engine algorithms. However, is there a way of actually besting the SEO copywriters by just-in-time exposing relevant content based on what users are searching for? This is not an easy problem.
- Readers may want to read books in their entirety, but a lot of them just want to get point information about some relevant question. (This is orthogonal to eBook publishing, but still important nonetheless). The web is of course ideal for such content, but in the eBook world, is there an equivalent? Somewhat akin to windows “help” documents (chm files). The content/index/search tabs/functionality is really good, but is there a better interface?
The big question here is: Can the eBook industry gear itself towards a more market driven solution? Can eBooks be be more “connected”, but still independent? Can content be organized and indexed in such a way that it is easy to search and satisfy the more impatient readers, but still be available in a more comprehensive manner for the more patient ones?
More importantly, is there a good monetization opportunity hidden here?