Saturday, October 29, 2011

The United Nations of Reading

The Internet Archive
I had a great time at Books in Browsers, even though I completely lost my voice on the second day. The assembled talent and brainpower made almost every moment a thrill. When my talk from the morning of the first day was given prominent mention in the New York Times' Bits Blog, I got so excited that I couldn't pay attention to an amazing talk on annotation of medieval manuscripts.

But the most important talk of the two days was Brian O'Leary's closing presentation, which prompted the Twitter backchannel to unanimously elect him the "Secretary-General of the United Nations of Publishing".

Here's his abstract:
Although business models have changed, publishers and their intermediaries continue to try to evolve their market roles in ways that typically follow the rules for “two-party, one-issue” negotiations.  In an environment in which the negotiations are better framed using models for “many parties, many issues”, these more limited approaches have made the design of a flawed ecosystem even worse, shifting burdens onto valued intermediaries (libraries and booksellers, among others).

Content abundance, coupled with improvements in available technologies, gives us an opportunity to reshape the competitive framework.  This talk will examine options to apply the principles of effective game design to create a set of new, targeted and evolving business models for content dissemination in an era of abundance.
O'Leary talked about the changes occurring in the entire ecosystem of what used to be called "publishing": authors, agents, publishers, distributors, retailers, libraries, and of course readers. He noted that relationships throughout the ecosystem were being renegotiated without an awareness of the effects of these changes on the rest of the ecosystem. As a result, frameworks, arrangements and processes that could benefit the entire ecosystem were not being given the consideration they deserve.

The future of EPUB
O'Leary pointed to the discussions leading to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as a possible inspiration for a reading-ecosystem way forward. The breakthrough in those discussions was the introduction game-theory models that helped the parties see the effects of agreements and provisions on all stakeholders in the Law of the Seas negotiations. If a similar sort of model could be developed for the activities surrounding publishing, it might be possible to do a lot more that to "save publishing". Intelligent, collaborative application of digital technologies should be able to increase the effectiveness of an industry whose purpose is to promote reading, education, culture and knowledge.

According to O'Leary, we need to figure out ways to fund the sort of research that could be the basis of modeling for the reading ecosystem. One possibility would be to create a cross-industry organization to do so.

If such an organization were created, I hope that its membership mirrors the composition of Books in Browsers attendees. Many inhabitants of the reading ecosystem were represented, despite the technology emphasis of the meeting- publishers, librarians, agents, academics, authors, designers. The contrast with last week's DPLA Launch meeting was striking- hardly any publishers or authors were in evidence at DPLA. It seems to me that with everything that's at stake, we could do a lot worse than to listen some more to Brian O'Leary.

Update (10/31/11): The text of O'Leary's talk is posted here.)

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