Thursday, September 30, 2010

Philosopher Tim O'Reilly Lights Up Publishing

Tim O'Reilly, Founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, didn't mean to become a publisher, he just fell into it. He started out doing technical documentation by accident because a friend who was a programmer was asked to write a manual but didn't know how. O'Reilly had written a book about Frank Herbert, and agreed to help. After doing consulting for a while, he noticed that all his clients wanted manuals for the same software, so he started to retain his rights so he could sell the same manual over and over again. He never wanted to be a publisher; the job he wanted to do was to "spread the knowledge of innovators".

That single-minded attention to "doing a job" has set him apart from many of his colleagues in publishing, because it has led his company into efforts that focus on spreading knowledge rather than selling books. He recognized that by publishing books, he was taking an oral culture around technology and translating it into a written culture.

Programming Perl (3rd Edition)Early on, O'Reilly expanded into conferences. He found that despite the strong sales of "Programming Perl", no one was talking about or spreading the word about Perl. He organized a "Party for Perl" and a lot of people showed up. The resulting conference business built on the realization that his best selling books were being written by innovators who had no place to get to know each other and spread their innovations.

Another direction that grew naturally out of O'Reilly's focus on spreading knowledge was a digital distribution business. O'Reilly had taken the trouble to figure out how to do some of the messy bits in selling digital versions of their books, so when other publishers saw what they had, they were happy to have O'Reilly help them do the same.

O'Reilly was interviewed in front of a room full of New York publishers on Wednesday as part of a series of interviews produced by the Publishing Point group. He  combined an enthusiasm for the changes sweeping publishing with a missional faith in its practicality. Yet many of his themes were deeply at odds with the conventional wisdom of traditional publishers, and he claims not to be a publisher at all from a philosophical point of view. O'Reilly wants to see more innovation in pricing, and thinks that people will buy more books - and spend more, if ebooks are more moderately priced. Publishers trying to preserve the pricing of print books in the shift to ebooks are not following a winning strategy, according to O'Reilly.

O'Reilly's notions of what's NOT important for publishing were surprising to hear. They're shaped by O'Reilly's formative experiences in publishing. He claims to fight the notion that publishing is about quality. His first books sold even though they didn't have an index or an ISBN, or even a spine. They didn't have pretty formatting, but they had good information, and they paid attention to the things that mattered for the job they were meant to do. In a book about programming, the code samples needn't look good, but they do need to be correct, without extra spaces that break syntax. They were selling  books for $5, and people would call up from Europe asking them to overnight a copy.

He's also skeptical of the notion that an important role of publishers is curation.
In the old days, we had a long period where it was fairly clear what were the hard things that publishers did. To be quite honest, It was NOT curating the content and finding great stuff. I think that's certainly part of what a publisher does, you know winnow through the chaff and find something really great. It's still part of what you have to do. But I think It's seductive to think 'we're really good at that'.
O'Reilly learned not to overvalue curation the hard way. At the very start of the internet, O'Reilly developed a website called GNN (for Global Network Navigator) which selected the very best websites from the internet and organized them into categories. "We had a publisher's mindset. We said: we're going to winnow through all these emerging world-wide web sites, and we're going to pick out the ones that are the best." You've probably not heard of GNN; that's because Yahoo came along and categorized all the websites it could find, not just the good ones. Google then came along and made Yahoo's categorization irrelevant by indexing all the pages on the web without even bothering to categorizing the web sites.

According to O'Reilly, "Manual curation is going to get it wrong a lot." He mentioned that Frank Herbert's bestseller "Dune" was turned down by over 50 publishers until it was finally published by Chilton's, a publisher of automobile repair manuals, of all things!

Michael Healy, the interviewer for the day, wanted to clarify what he heard O'Reilly saying. "With the notion of curation having been disrupted, if you're a general trade publisher and you're relying on curation as your value-add, are you screwed, or have I missed something?"

"It's certainly true that alot of my thinking is biased by the fact that I publish stuff that people need rather than the stuff that they just want, so I'm not sure how deep my insight goes into the problems of general trade publishing."

Audience member Bill Glass expressed concern about the low prices for ebooks. He pointed to the room (in the Random House building overlooking Broadway), and asked "In the ebook world of the future, will we still be able to afford THIS?"
To me, you gotta care about something more than preserving your business. Because, obviously companies have made these types of transitions, and this is just my personal response. We're all gonna die one day anyway and we'll lose all our stuff. So don't worry too much about it. Just do something that lights you up, and lights up your customers, and lights up the world and scale to that. Because what's going to happen is people who are lit up by the future are going to be pursuing that future, and the people who hold onto the past are going to hold on too long.
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