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The Difference Engine in Digital Time:
Tools and Strategies for Selling Content on the Internet

by Laura Fillmore
President, Open Book Systems (OBS)

Presented at
Association of American Publishers, Inc.
Professional/Scholarly Publishing Division
1997 Annual Conference
Washington D.C.
February 13, 1997

Copyright 1996 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

Table of Contents:


OBS attended our first PSP conference three years ago, in 1994, when we organized the first "Internet Room" for UMI. We got into the Internet publishing business in 1992, with the publication of a book we conceived and produced, "The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking" by Tracy LaQuey and published by Addison-Wesley, the first trade book about the Internet. Our web site was barely a year old at that time, and one of the major features of the site was the "ABCs of Publishing URLs", a comprehensive listing of all the publishers and bookstores active on the Internet. It was one screen in length, and we updated it every couple of weeks.

Back in 1994, we still thought of the Internet as a marketing mechanism and a means to distribute books, and files for books --- hence our name, the Online BookStore (OBS). We thought our business would come from selling books and access to files for books, over the Net. At the PSP conference in 1994, we introduced for sale by download the first "distributive" book, Adrian Butash's hyperlinked "Bless this Food", published by Delacorte Press. While paving the way for whole new publishing disciplines of online marketing, link editing, and cybersales, "Bless This Food" indicated to us that the future of the online publishing industry does not lie in retrofitting product-based publishing models to the kinetic medium Internet opens for us. Despite a significant amount of press attention and lots of traffic, we sold only one copy of the distributive version of the book of graces, to an entrepreneurial professor at Harvard Business School.

Three and four years ago, the name "Online BookStore" was a novel concept that required explaining. As the name "online bookstore" became more generic and publishers began to actively explore the Internet, it became clear to us that the real publishing work in this medium was in building an architecture that enables publishers to reveal, and readers to explore, on a massively customized basis, the ideas and information contained within books and journals. In 1995, we changed the name of our company from Online BookStore to Open Book Systems, maintaining the acronym and the trademarked logo. In so doing, we were accepting and beginning to explore the truth that a work of art, a publication, is never complete as long as it is being perceived. A book never ceases being published as long as readers are reading it.

And the best way for a publisher to publish in this medium is to give publishers' employees the tools which enable them to continue to do the work they are already doing --- online. Without a lot of cost and fuss, right from their desktops, editors, marketers, and administrators can add to and monitor their own web site, without the intermediation of experts, if given the proper tools to do so. And so OBS began to create software.

Publishing the Process: A New Kind of Difference Engine

A book's fundamental ideas and applications evolve through use. Encoding the architecture that allows for this evolution of thought over time becomes the fundamental challenge to today's online publisher. By enabling construction of and access to that kinetic thought stream, the publisher begins to publish his own process. He makes available online a succession or cluster of versions of a publication, from original idea through to the application of the published work in the form of tests for readers. He becomes a publisher of the flux of ideas, a publisher of changing states.

Harnessing the engines of change inside of a computer is a problem which occupied the architect of the first computer, Charles Babbage, several hundred years ago. His Difference Engine was tasked with calculating differential equations, a job which seems simple in today's age of pocket computers, and perhaps simpler still to publishers, who approach the world of ever-more networked computers with digitized words and pictures in the context of a rapidly changing marketplace, searching for a solution written in black instead of red ink. There is no right answer to the equation, no blueprint to follow.

Still, some comparisons between this first calculator of numbers and our own publishing environment of the Internet may enlighten us. A mathematical equation depicts a change in state; the numbers on the left side of the equals sign, when put through the functions called for by the equation, result in the product on the right side of the equals sign. Babbage's machine attempted to automate and render repeatable the process of these equations; the process, not the products of the equations, was the goal of that early automation of thought.

The Synergy between Terrestrial and Cyber Publishing Tasks

If we extrapolate from the difference engine model to today's online publishing environment, and think of the internetworked computing machine as enabling us to automate, archive, and compare state changes, we might begin to see new and commercially promising terrain for online publishing. This terrain extends beyond the familiar boundaries of marketing existing publications, and leads us towards the possibilities of using the Internet to define and make accessible stages in the publishing process.

These stages may be assigned definition and value by virtue of the time and attention put into them by authors, editors, marketers, and production people --- time and attention by their own staffs, which publishers are already paying salaries for. In working with publishers over the years, OBS has built web sites and publishing software that enables publishers to use the Internet as a kinetic publishing environment and to capitalize on the income potential newly identified by the online computing environment. OBS isn't selling a product, but rather enabling tools which enable them to apply their skills and experience, the work they are already doing, to the online environment. Capitalizing on the real-time internetworked environment, and by making accessible the differing states in the publication process to both inhouse staffs, and the readers which are the source of revenue, we are beginning to discover profitable publishing on the Internet, a profit which comes not from retrofitting a product-based industry to the new medium, but rather from codifying the new and digital business of knowledge transferal inside the engine of a the massively customized thought machine.

In the knowledge management world, ideas contained in online publications gain or lose value through the process of thought. When an acquiring editor reads and accepts for peer review an article, that puts a certain value on the submitted article. When an editor spends time thinking about and critiquing an author's work, the author's work increases in value. By properly typesetting or coding a manuscript so that it is attractive to its readers, the compositor adds value to the publication. By applying market knowledge and understanding to an author's work, the experienced marketer further enhances the value of a publication. Each task means time spent actively thinking about a publication, time and thought which in the pre-networked world was behind the scenes at a publishing house, and went largely unrecorded, unpublished, untransferrable to others involved in the process.

In the old days, there were basically three states of a publication's life: the manuscript, the print or contained publication, and the post-publication applications --- with a great deal of time in between. Now, thanks to the kinetic and codified architecture of Internet publishing, publishing those differing states in the evolution of a publication can mean an enhanced competitive position and new income streams for publishers, and a richer information source for the reader.

The business of publishing the very process of publishing itself invites publishers to redefine what their resources are, where to make their investments in order to capitalize on the developing potentials of the online marketplace of ideas. Successful publishers may soon discover that their essential resources are defined not in terms of timber, paper, and glue, or paying large sums to web builders and outside experts, but rather in salaries and fees paid to humans to think about their publications, to refine and market the publisher's main source of income, authors' ideas.

The internetworked machine makes such intellectual effort measurable, definable, and deliverable. Online, the behind the scenes processes assume front and center stage. The acquisitions editor who can respond the quickest to trends and scientific developments online, will be able to attract more authors to the house; the editors who do the best editing will may prove inducements to authors to choose one publisher over another because of the added value the publisher brings to the publishing process. The production department doesn't labor anonymously for months on each book, behind closed doors amid waxers and galleys and dummies, but instead assumes responsibility for regularly posting the content state changes occurring within the publishing house.

| - PART II - |

The Difference Engine in Digital Time: Tools and Strategies for Selling Content on the Internet
Copyright 1997 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.