The ground beneath the publishing industry trembled in 2007, when Amazon released the Kindle and Apple released the iPhone. Digital—which had wrought havoc on the music and newspaper industries—was finally coming to the consumer market for books. Certainly digital had been reshaping reading, and much of what we call “publishing” since at least the 1970s, but for the mass market, 2007 was when the general population started to consider that “books” might come in pixels rather than pages. In the few years since, these devices and their spawn have brought digital reading of long-form text from the realm of “it might happen sometime” to “it is happening right now,” and faster than anyone predicted. Many questions have been answered, resoundingly: Will readers read ebooks? Yes. Lots? Yes. Dedicated reading devices, or smartphones, or tablets? Doesn’t matter, as long as there is cross-device accessibility. Browser reading? See previous. Shakeup in publishing? Sorta, but the sky is still overhead.

That rapid shakeup—from print to digital buying and reading—has been massive, but it’s really only a transitional phase to a radically different future.

Just a Shift?

We used to live in a paper-based model: Publishers sent print books to distributors and retailers, who sold print books to readers, who took those books home or to work and read them when and where they liked.

We are now effectively replicating this model for digital: Publishers send digital files to distributors and retailers, who sell those files to readers, who download them onto various devices and read them when and where they like.

Of course much else has happened. Pricing structures have changed (the 99-cent best-seller, as well as the agency model), the barriers to entry have crumbled (Bowker estimates 2.8 million print-on-demand and self-published print books came into being in 2010, versus an estimated 270,000 traditionally published books; Smashwords currently distributes some 30,000 ebook authors and 80,000 titles), and the role of the publisher in this disintermediated world is in question (crime writer Joe Konrath claims he does much better without a traditional publisher, and Amanda Hocking sold more than a million copies of her self-published paranormal novel through Kindle, and then went on to sign a multi-book deal with St. Martin’s Press).

Or a Fundamental Restructuring?

But there is a greater shift afoot than just pricing and delivery mechanisms, and that is what this book aims to explore. We want to examine how digital changes the process of making a book, as well as what we do with it afterwards.

The move to digital is not just a format shift, but a fundamental restructuring of the universe of publishing. This restructuring will touch every part of a publishing enterprise—or at least most publishing enterprises. Shifting to digital formats is “part one” of this changing universe; “part two” is what happens once everything is digital. This is the big, exciting unknown.

What happens when all books are truly digital, connected, ubiquitous? We’re starting to put the infrastructure in place now, so we can start doing things with books that have never before been possible.

What’s In the Book?

This book is meant to be a guidebook for the future—a collection of essays from thought leaders and practitioners about the bleeding edge of publishing. We’ve organized it in three parts:

Part 1. The Setup: Approaches to the Digital Present

In this section, we explore what digital means right now for publishers, and how we need to rethink critical practical matters like design, metadata, and workflow, as well as the underlying assumptions about what a book is and what the job of a publisher might be.

Part 2: The Outlook: What Is Next for the Book?

In this section, we explore that jump into the unknown, the next phase of the “digital book.” Here we look at all kinds of exotic things we can start to do with books once we truly think of them as connected, digital objects, rather than just digital copies of paper objects.

Part 3: The Things We Can Do with Books: Projects from the Bleeding Edge

In this section, we hear from some of those brave souls who have already plunged into the future: those who do more than think and write and talk about “the future of the book,” those who have some skin in the game, with projects, passions, technologies, and enterprises struggling to explore the future now.

Inspired by those leading the charge, this book will also practice what it preaches—it is being written and edited using a new web-based book-production system, (full disclosure, I am the founder of PressBooks).  In fact this book was conceived as an experiment, to test out new kinds of production methods as we wrote the book. So while we’ve been writing and editing this book, we’ve also been building the book-making tool upon which it was written, edited, and from which comes the EPUB, print and web versions of the book.

We are also encouraging reader feedback throughout the writing process. The book is available for free online at as well as in other formats for sale from O’Reilly, and major online retailers.

This book, like all books, is meant to start a conversation, to be part of a conversation. Feedback is encouraged. We may well be missing topics we should not have missed. We might spend too much time on the wrong topics, and we could get things wrong. But nothing is permanent, and everything is connected. Comments on what we have written or should have written help flesh out this complex discussion that surrounds all of us in publishing. We hope this book will be useful as a point of departure for thinking about what publishing can be.

You can continue reading on the web, and add your comments here:


Book: A Futurist's Manifesto Copyright © 2012 by O'Reilly Media. All Rights Reserved.

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