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Meme Machinery 101:
The Evolution of a University Press Marketplace

by Laura Fillmore
President, Open Book Systems (OBS)

Presented to AAUP Annual Meeting
at Snowbird
May 24, 1996

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

Coming back to the Wasatch mountains at Snowbird is a welcome pilgrimage for me, coming back after three years out there in the world of the .coms. During this time since the last AAUP conference I attended here, sometimes I have felt like a .org in .com's clothing. I don't think these twin directions are too different from the situation of the University Presses find themselves in today, which are charged both with disseminating knowledge far and wide, while also keeping careful track of finances. The AAUP home page offers some guidance on this twin mission of education and business:

"It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge," wrote Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of The Johns Hopkins University, in establishing his university's press, "and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures- but far and wide." And sure enough, university press books have been published widely and well; of the approximately 50,000 books published in the United States in 1993, roughly 8,000, or 16 percent, were AAUP member titles. These books, however, accounted for less than 2 percent of the publishing industry's total annual sales for that year. Perhaps that explains the comment made in " What Is a University Press? By Sheldon Meyer and Leslie Phillabaum: "The single greatest problem facing university presses is financing..."

Online publishing may offer some answers to this fiscal problem, while opening up some new terrains in the form of university/university press collaboration. In that light this evening I'd like to briefly explore how the online publishing terrain has changed so dramatically over the past three years, and specifically, how the evolution from using the web as a marketing tool, to using it as a real-time, commercially viable publishing medium may offer new challenges and new income streams to university presses. These challenges and this income stream may come from a closer alliance between the presses and their respective universities in their approach to developing a commercial Internet publishing presence on the World Wide Web.

We in the .com department bring good news in this regard: online publishing is a viable business. OBS has made progress over these past three years, and especially in the last six months I am happy to report that we are making online publishing work as a business in itself, no longer focusing for our livelihood only on the marketing of publishers' products on the net. "Real" online publishing doesn't supplant the marketing of books and journals on the Net, but it represents a real step forward towards harnessing some of the real potentials of the Internet for publishing -- recorded thinking -- purposes.

Back in 1993 at the Snowbird annual AAUP meeting, I shared the lessons OBS had learned since 1992 and our online publication of "The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking" -- the first trade book about the Internet which we conceived of and produced, was written by Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne Ryer, and published by Addison-Wesley. Publishing this book online taught us that publishing on the net was a paradoxical enterprise with a great deal of marketing promise. In order to make money on the Net, at that time, you gave files away for free. The online publisher as marketer develops a synergy between the cyber texts available for free, and the terrestrial products which form the backbone of his business.

In 1993, our experience with selling formatted files of a Stephen King first serial took this lesson one step further by demonstrating the need to use the Net for a new, access-based kind of publishing which we have called "distributive publishing". Distributive publishing calls on the distributive architecture of the Net to bring to live and make available the ideas and information contained in a publication, rather than simply using the Net as a distribution mechanism for contained files. Both the Stephen King and the "Internet Companion" experiences pointed to the rich possibilities of marketing as a first step into the online publishing field. And Gregory Rawlins drove the point home during that 1993 meeting with the advice: "If you're not part of the steamroller, you are going to be part of the road." I'm glad to see so many steamrollers out here in the audience, and 65,000 AAUP titles for sale on the net in the form of a collaboratively produced catalog.

The question of how to gauge marketing efforts arises, however, and I ask you the question people so frequently ask me: "Are you making money yet?" Has the presence of your book product catalogs really worked as a marketing vehicle on the Net by significantly increasing sales ? Have the salaries you've been paying to web masters and web mistresses, coders and geeks, generated revenues to launch new publications, or have they rather served to put the "non" in "nonprofit" into boldface type? Have posting the .gifs and blurbs and flap copy of books helped advance University Presses towards the next generation of publishing? Marketing on the web is a first step, but it has to be coupled with an appreciation for R&D, with an understanding that we are building a Meme Machine that goes beyond marketing and into actual online publishing. I ask you to welcome to the age of implementation, where we begin to use the Net not only to market and distribute book products, but to use it to enable access to the ongoing and adapting ideas and information housed WITHIN those publications.

When Michael Jensen invited me to speak, he suggested I talk about the window of opportunity that is rapidly closing as the Net becomes increasingly commercialized. But rather than look at the Waltdisnification of the Net and bemoan a loss, let's consider the opportunity before us today, let's look at the new marketplace as a huge store, a new commercial terrain for publishers. The constituent and functioning parts of this marketplace are all coming together, and in fact, the "meme machine," the online publisher of tomorrow, exists today. All it needs is content!

Tonight from our perch in Snowbird, let's examine this new and hungry, lightning swift, and state-of-the-art Internet Meme Machine, a functioning marketplace for ideas and information. The machine exists, but where's that much-touted "content" everyone's talking about? All I see when I got out on the net is ads these days! While the sponsorship/ad model is prevalent today, don't be distracted by that, or the user-paid Internet is right around the corner. The marketplace for ideas is already built, and those who succeed in defining and deploying the successful business models for content, for affixing dollar weight and value on intangible ideas, will likely determine our culture's course for years to come. One degree we steer North or South at this early stage , fresh away from the dock, can land us and our progeny either in the frozen Arctic wastes, or in a tropical paradise. It's a hard problem worth tangling with, a challenge certainly worthy of the colleges and universities gathered here tonight. Let's take a look at this evolving mosaic of a marketplace, this now largely empty Meme Machine waiting for your content.

We can use the prevalent metaphor of a store. The infrastructure seems to work fine: the floor, ceiling, roof, plumbing, lights are all in. New cables run under the Atlantic, whole towns are getting fibred up, and increasingly, globally, connectivity seems to get faster and cheaper with every mouseclick. Thanks to server software, the shelves in the store extend down well lit aisles, to the vanishing point and beyond. Open Market is about to come out with a new IPO, promising to add to the list of Internet millionaires. And not only big companies buying expensive software, but anyone can put shelves in the store! As every client blinks to life and realizes he too can also serve, for an incredibly low price, those shelves in the Internet store continue to extend on and on and on. I've heard that ten thousand new web sites are turned on every week in the US alone!

And what's on the shelves of the Meme Machine store? In business, most of us do what we know, and publishers are no exception: they try and sell existing products: books and journals. But publishing, isn't that a common, an open medium, like the English language? Anyone can do this ;-) ! We all talk and write, don't we? Like the Desktop Publishing "revolution" before it, the Internet wave lures its millions aboard with increasing ease and low cost. HTML converters, natural language processors and translators, scanners--publishing on the web is so easy your dog could do it. Some few companies and individuals are even opening new avenues to their businesses through online publishing, not just retrofitting existing paper products to the online medium, as so many publishers are doing. In fact, a whole new breed of publishers emerges in companies such as Ragu spaghetti sauce, AOL, and MCI.

To get around these vast shelves in our Meme Machine Store, our marketplace of ideas, are the bitmobiles, the browsers such as Netscape -- another mega IPO from a company which didn't even have a business plan when it started out. These browsers are good and getting better, more customizable, almost becoming biological alteregos of their users in some cases! And searching through the products on the shelves of this Internet marketplace, also poses no problem, with the proliferation of highly sophisticated search engines which serve as customizable filters. Like the browsers before them, these search engines represent another tribe in the new breed of publishers. Search engines are in effect publishing the web back to the web audience in a filtered and massively customized fashion. By categorizing and rating web sites, and interspersing appropriate ads, they are publishing, and hiring publishing people to work for them--at salaries few publishers, especially university presses, could afford to pay. The IPO for the Lycos search engine again testifies to the intense financial interest in this Internet marketplace.

And the customers for the store? Millions are here and more are on the way. At the W3 conference in Paris last week (where OBS presented on a panel called "Business Success on the Web"), Jim Clark, President of Netscape, said that he's recently visited with every major TV manufacturer in the world, and each and every one plans to release a web-ready TV to the market within the next twelve months -- the first major innovation in TV in 40 years, since the advent of color TV. So yes, the customers are here, and many millions more are on the way.

Finally, the cash register stands firmly at the door. Secure processing is happening. Does anyone doubt that the combined or individual efforts of Visa, MasterCard, Amex, DigiCash, First Virtual, will crack this nut? Sales of products at the OBS database catalog quintupled when we built a new and easily clickable interface, in response to the requirements of Miramax Films. People seem to be using their credit cards rather than 800 fax numbers online. So the Marketplace is open, the Meme Machine is built. And what do the university presses, and more specifically, the universities standing *behind* the university presses, have to put on the shelves, besides the existing books and journals of the University Presses?

When viewing publications as products, with that focus on copy protection, publishers tend to experiment less than, say, a company like Ragu spaghetti sauce, which will teach you Italian, give you recipes, offer you stories from the old country. Instead, traditional publishers frequently try to retrofit an old and tangible business model on the new marketplace and today's "meme machine." Other businesses are not so chary, and might be seen as more advanced in online publishing because they have nothing to lose. Companies such as Lycos, Ragu, and Travelocity come to mind. forms an excellent example because it seems to represent the mirror image of a standard copy-based publishing model. Brand new, very well promoted, Travelocity is a visually attractive, clickable and massively customizable travel site, peppered with large ads from international corporations like Toyota. Just launched and highly hyped, the site appears to be hollow! One clicks through many levels of hierarchy and never finds any content to speak of ! It wouldn't surprise me if their plan calls for the fields to be populated very quickly by a legion of link editors in response to the clickstreams or thoughtpaths of the users. Populated by what, one might speculate: links to .edu sites containing information about various attractive travel sites on the globe? Truly, a brand of reader-driven publishing emerges, the mirror image of how we were taught to publish: think and write first, publish second. The question is, how to merge this hollow data shell approach with that of traditional publishing.

University Presses should think: How do we supply our content to this meme machine; how do we effectively identify our audience and customize our content (and the online content of our respective universities) so we can begin to buy and sell ideas in the kinetic online marketplace? The technological aspects are not the issue any more, to any great extent. The hardest challenge involves the landscape of the imagination, not the terrain of a circuit board.

Unlike online marketing, online publishing isn't obvious. That is, it isn't obvious until someone else does it. Custom fitting an author's ideas, or an entire content area, to readers online, opens up a new terrain--leaving us no time to pause! Just as we got comfortable with the idea of a large shopping mall filled with book products, canned hams and shoes, and got our catalogs on line, the sea of URLs around us on the web got so diluted you can't find anything any more. Search on "Native American Art" or "travel" and spend the rest of your life sifting URLs of blurbs and bogus ads to find a few solid URLs of wisdom -- frequently at an .edu. The universities are havens for reliable content, and are linked to regularly for that purpose . What does that mean on the newly commercial Internet, and how does it fit into the mission of University presses? If I search on "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and find Keats' poetry typed or scanned in by an anonymous student somewhere, would I rely on that text, or go and visit Columbia's Bartleby site? What is that Ivy League stamp of authenticity worth in the meme machine? Is publishing in this context, the context of accessing and using ideas and information, *really* a product based business? And how might the University Press function as a commercial front end, a link licensor, for the online scholarship produced by the university scholars and students?

The capabilities of the meme machine lure us onwards: it's instantaneous, interactive, capable of micro transactions of both thought and finance (Charge by the trademarked word!), and able to track our thought or session paths. The meme machine is a real-time multimedia publishing machine. When publishing, as opposed to simply marketing online, we can capitalize on these dynamic properties of the machine., a site OBS built recently for Springhouse, the nursing arm at Reed Elsevier, features functionality that balances the for-free of marketing with the for-pay of online publishing. The searchable reference library is available for free if you want to search, but in the near future, full document delivery will be available for pay. The searchable database catalog is available for free, while the books and journals are for pay. The continuing education tests are available to play with and complete for free, but to get and register your results, you have to pay -- less than it would cost you to do it on paper. The tests may soon feature clickable sounds among the multiple choice questions -- heart murmurs, supplemented by applause for right answers. The balance between what's offered members (for subscription) and what's offered the general web public (for free) is an adaptable equation that changes with use. Springhouse is taking the big step. They are publishing, not only marketing online, and in so doing, identifying new areas in which to grow their business.

Readers and users respond to a site that responds to them. People use sites that enable them to get their work --or their play -- done. Such users become more than visitors or random hits. Moderated forums, online manuscript submission processes, and password encoded and secure peer review systems for journal articles point to significant departures from the early uses of the Net as a distribution or marketing medium for print products. It is an enabling medium for the work of publishing to get done, among many people working on the same problem from many different places on the globe.

Online publishing concerns PROCESS, concerns the evolution of ideas, and the meme machine represents a new kind of "difference engine" -- a difference engine which can measure the difference between an original idea (or "Uhr Meme") and its progeny (Sub Memes). Using this Meme Machine, which might be trained to measure degree of change, or degree of difference in an Uhr idea, we can offer custom access to ideas and information to people -- different versions of the same book for different people. Such customization can happen today, using today's tools. True online publishing means building and maintaining a community of mind. The shell of the meme machine may be built; but it's being filled with content now, and this content, and its use and evolution in response to its use, will further define the machine.

The traditional publishing community can choose either to witness or to help determine how this thought machine evolves. There are of course collaborations possible. The new breed of publishers, the powerful search engines and browser companies and phone giants, may come knocking at the door looking to license content, authentic university content. Surely, that's making money from online publishing, right? One could license the rights to a page or a book or a picture, and get paid per click, or paid per user blink (as soon as the hardware catches up and two-way screens become the norm). But surely, it is better to license than to be licensed

The open window of opportunity at present offers alert publishers and their universities the chance to translate the creativity and control they have enjoyed in paper publishing to the online industry. Making money through online publishing means building on and adapting existing strengths, and supplementing existing business. It means publishing the very processes of publishing, the skills that define the high quality of university press publications. There exist today new opportunities on the web for university presses as authenticators, verifiers, and organizers of the web's information. These opportunities exists especially now, as commercialization gluts the content channels of the web, and people begin to welcome quality and authentic information -- and are now willing to pay for it. This was not the case three years ago.

Looking ahead, Michael asked me to indicate some new directions OBS is headed for, so we can "skate to where the puck is going to be," as Wayne Gretzsky said. When I get home on Sunday, I have a meeting with the crew of the sailing schooner Adventure, a national Historical Monument built in 1927. It's 120 feet long, berthed in the city of Gloucester. Joining us will be professors, teachers and students from Salem State and Gloucester public schools. We comprise the web committee, and we plan to publish this boat, and through so doing, thanks to grants from the state and federal governments, educate students internationally in such areas as marine biology, ecology, seamanship, navigation, and sea lore. We plan to sell artifacts online, troll for sponsors and volunteers so we can repair and sail, maybe race the ship again, and run tuition-based interactive courses from the ship, in multiple languages. Publishing a boat, bringing a schooner to life on the web, do we call this publishing?

Just as we focused on the web as a marketing vehicle for publishers three years ago here at Snowbird, I'd like to suggest a new direction today, and that direction is towards the area of commercially successful, real-time online publishing. The kind that lives, that breathes, and talks back. As the stickers and ads and hucksterism proliferate in the diluted sea of URLs that is today's commercial Internet , consider plugging in to the meme machine, bringing to life a new generation of publishing, one which at once advances the mission of the university presses -- "the dissemination of knowledge far and wide" -- while giving the old terrestrial business some new breath in her sail by using the web to strengthen the alliance between the university presses, and the universities behind them.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

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