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Online Publishing: Threat or Menace?

by Laura Fillmore

Part 2

Presented at Graphic Communications Association Online Publishing Conference
Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
March, 1993

Copyright © 1993 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.
laura@obs-us.com

What does all this new electronic stuff offer us that we didn't have before, and where does literacy fit in? There's Nintendo, a hyped-up, wired-in experience of manipulating a cartoon character in an environment of someone else's making. There are the interactive CDs, where an encyclopedia will show you jungle animals in quicktime, substituting pictures for words. But most importantly, there's the hypertext book that makes you and the way you read part of the book itself. Your unique version is digitized, recorded, and thus immediately transferable to your neighbor in a way impossible when we were all solo armchair readers. The technology enables us to get inside each other's heads on an unprecedented mass scale.

Up until now, the major limitation of these new electronic products books is that they're all separate. Everyone's at his own station, or even on his own private network, insular, doing his own thing on his own platform. Where's the missing link in this new digitized terrain of ours? How to erase the incompatibilities among hardware, software, and our own personal wetware -- what will flatten out and eliminate those barriers, those delimiters of separateness--time and space? I'm not speculating about machines to be invented sometime soon. I'm suggesting linking together online and plugging into the biggest collective machine ever invented. It's plain vanilla, cross-platform ASCII. It's here. It's now. This is the Internet.

Created over 25 years ago by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as ARPANET, the Internet was initially designed for computer professionals and researchers to share costly hardware resources. What has become today's data superhighway was originally designed as a kind of electronic communications mosaic that could survive even a nuclear blast. So, unlike a centralized network such as Fed Ex, where if headquarters is destroyed the whole system falls, if part of the Internet, say Dallas, disappears suddenly, then the Internet routers simply redirect the data packets to their destinations. Information travels over the Internet in many separate packets, each one labelled with addressing and sequencing information, and travelling separately to its destination. By analogy, if you were to ship the Brooklyn Bridge via Internet to San Francisco, each brick would travel separately by the best and fastest route, and the bridge would be reassembled in San Francisco as soon as all the pieces arrived.

The Internet is remarkably anarchic, totally distributed, run and maintained by countries, corporations, individual volunteers and universities. The common language is ASCII, the price of admission is free.

Well, almost. Our taxes have paid for it after all, and continue to pay for its new incarnation, NREN, the National Research and Education Network. The same kind of defense dollars built the national highway system. The Internet's a resource, just as the National Parks and Seashores are national resources, only this one's man made. And for the last three years or so a handful of companies have sprung up, provider service companies, offering Internet access to people and corporations equipped with computers large and small, and modems. These companies have grown quite successfully, many exponentially, along with the Internet.

I first became interested to the publishing possibilities on the Internet in the Spring of 1989, when my company was producing Quarterman's book "The Matrix". To punctuate the production process with doses of real life, the author sent me some messages he'd picked up on the Internet--first person accounts from students in Tianamen Square, and from Alaskans responding to the black blight from the Valdez polluting their shores. These messages were so much more vital and immediate than traditional news stories, that I began to wonder how I might hook into this global network and find out for myself what the Internet is all about.

Last Spring we got around to it by proposing a trade computer book called "The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking, " an inexpensive trade paperback aimed at telecommunications neophytes. Our author, Tracy LaQuey, did a superb job writing the incredibly complicated basics into layman's language. We signed a contract with A-W in July of 1992, then researched, wrote and produced the book using the Internet, and delivered film for the book 8 weeks later. Even though my decade of experience in publishing told me differently, I wanted to see the book in bookstores immediately, and this urgency increased when the man who wrote the Foreword to our book, Senator Gore, was elected Vice President. During those eight weeks, from the time we delivered film till the book arrived on bookstore shelves, we explored other ways to make the text electronically available to the Internet public, the natural audience for the book.

That's when I met Barry Shein at Software Tool & Die, the first provider service to the Internet. STD has the blessing of the NSF (National Science Foundation) to run a commercial service on the Internet, and he described his operation as basically an electronic store with empty shelves and a cash register at the door. I decided that I'd find electronic properties to fill those shelves and we'd start the Online BookStore (OBS), offering digitized text, audio, and voice files to anyone with a PC, Mac, or larger machine capable of Internet access. We'd keep the prices affordable, say $5 per hour or $5 per download, and offer authors and electronic rights holders royalties for their works, a first on the Internet, which until this point enjoyed a culture of free and equal access to all resources. The problem was, of course, that the resources available did not include current copyright books and publications because there was no financial structure in place to pay authors and electronic rights holders. We wanted to create a popular and affordable alternative to online database services, some of which were charging $60 to $200 per hour, hardly mass market rates.

Our pilot project was "The Internet Companion" which we serialized for free, in ASCII format, chapter-by-chapter, starting on December 17th. The response was immediate and somewhat overwhelming. Close to 15,000 people have downloaded the first three chapters of the book, and many thousands have downloaded the gif file, the scan of the cover and the author's photo. People read the ASCII files and order the book (we've provided A-W's 800 number, as well as electronic ordering information), and our editor tells us that they definitely believe that OBS publication has spurred print sales, for they are receiving orders from places they'd never received orders from before. We have filled print orders from all over the world: Korea, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Guatemala, Finland. A-W is now planning a fifth printing, which will bring copies in print well over the 50,000 mark in just five months.

Remember, these were plain ASCII files, readable by any machine for online use only, not to be reformatted, printed out, or resold. Our new for-pay titles, "Bernice Chesler's Bed & Breakfast in the Northeast," will soon be available on searchable ASCII form, and supplemented by scanned-in photos of individual B&Bs. The Coover and Ashbery files, modern poetry and prose, will be illustrated by voice files of the authors reading their work. We believe that these releases will also complement the printed versions of the authors' works and serve to spur sales of the printed books. It just doesn't seem likely that people will want to sit and scroll through hundreds pages of text as a linear reading experience. Anyone sampling an online book who really wants to read the book in a traditional manner will probably just go and order the book.

But just who are these millions of people on the Internet, this large and immediate audience? It's safe to assume that they are all literate human beings who live and eat, travel, get sick, and read books. And many of them conduct their work, maybe even their personal lives, online. They are used to accessing information in a nonlinear fashion, relieved when a few keystrokes will deliver to their terminals what it might take others in the paper world many hours or weeks to ferret out. We should look at the way these net inhabitants live and work for guidance as to how we publish online.

But as we introduce for-pay information services online, the most pressing concern to authors and publishers seems to be loss of control, letting the genie out of the bottle and never realizing any income from work released in online form. To address this, let's look at the role of publisher in a different light: Instead of selling tangible products, the online publisher is licensing access to literature, information, to popular culture. The tangible products we've been marketing may become tomorrow's "storage media" for the dynamic information on the Net. And one can keep that genie in the bottle in four basic ways:. First of all, you can bury the source files and prohibit complete downloads, so that online customers can query and access files, find out what they want, and pay a fraction of the cost of the printed book for doing so. Your net audience may surprise you: people who access your texts may be people who in the past never purchased, say, a costly medical or reference book. This reader may just want to do few lookups once or twice. That's an expanded marketplace and unexpected income.

Then there's the exploding-book model pioneered by William Gibson with "Agrippa". He published this electronic book which self-destructed after the reader had been through it once. This may not prove to be the most popular method, but it's certainly an interesting option. Encryption is another avenue actively being explored, one route we at the OBS have shunned to this point because we think it unduly complicates things. After all, once thousands of books are available online, how many people are going to hoard their own private ASCII libraries, filling up stacks of hard disks, just so they can "own" files which are available inexpensively online? And, really, if reader/pirates are intent on ripping off publishers and reselling those files, would it be worth their while to retypeset the ASCII files and print and distribute? If they were so bent on deception, it would be a lot easier to simply Xerox the printed book.

Before getting all caught up in piracy issues, let's consider how digitized information and literature hold different values than their printed complements. Let's look at the readers and how they are using these online files. Think nonlinear; think interactive. Online cluster publishing might become popular, offering a collection of works on the same topic which will serve not as a static bookshelf, but an interactive, living resource. Clusters of books could appeal to different audiences; there might be an American History cluster aimed at sixth graders, or a cluster of travel guidebooks, nonfiction accounts and reference titles on particular areas of the world. One proposal currently taking shape is to group the many books and journals which have addressed the conspiracy theory of John F. Kennedy's assassination with the relevant government documents as a means of bringing that unresolved question into a new focus.

Beyond offering supplements in the form of digitized voice and graphics files, the online book might ultimately serve as a data stream, protean, updated regularly, so readers keep returning to get the most recent information or contribution. Tax and investment guides, software manuals, medical reference, drug books, current events books, anything that should be kept up to date is a prime candidate for online, ongoing publication. The printed book then becomes a freezeframe of sorts, a tangible resource for readers.

Publishers might consider weighting their lists differently and not putting so much emphasis on the front list, where books thrive or perish sometimes in a matter of weeks following their publication, depending on the shelf space accorded them in bookstores. What about that cookbook or gardening book published three years ago; why should those sales be flat? The expense of putting these backlist books online would be far less than a whole reprint and marketing campaign, and could yield significant income for both authors and publishers.

Also, while breathing life into the backlist, online publishing will advance the front list. The possibilities of first serials online have gotten a lot of interest at the OBS. This is a useful way to reach a broad audience with an enticing excerpt of a book before it's published, target the book at various interest groups, see how a particular author's work is received. Readers will welcome new work from their favorite authors, even if it's in ASCII form, and especially if it's not available yet in conventional channels.

Promotional possibilities also exist online. A publisher can offer its titles in an enriched context, supplemented by catalogue copy, reviews, blurbs, unbounded by the constraints of time and print dollars. The reader wins from an enriched browsing environment and can make more informed decisions on what he chooses to access on line or buy in print.

The totally new terrain of online interactive books will lead to interesting twists in our cultural evolution. Here's another "Internet Companion" example. We got some email from a professor at MIT the Sunday night before film was due at the printer for the fourth printing. He had a technical correction to our anecdotal account of the role the Internet played in the Soviet coup involving Gorbachev. His points were valid, we exchanged a few messages, made some changes which he approved, and we got the film out Monday morning. This kind of exchange would have been impossible in this timeframe in a paper environment. The interactive possibilities when extended to things like software books, medical case studies, environmental literature, where readers might end up contributing significantly to the content of the book, are quite intriguing. The ease and immediacy of electronic communication invites interaction on a level unknown to us before.

People interacting with texts and making new texts might indeed lead to plagiarism. How would one stop someone from simply taking all or part of an electronically published work and incorporating it into some new work and then reselling it? Beyond the strategies I've already outlined, let me speculate for a minute. People at the Internet Society have developed things called programmable Knowbots, which, when released on the net, can search out from among the thousands of databases and resources on the net whatever it is you program the knowbot to search for, and return that information to your mailbox. Perhaps one could program one's personal knowbots to search out text strings or whole articles from one's own copyrighted prose and report back where it's being used and for what. The idea smacks of Thought Police, but in an environment where the immediate working currency is original thought, something along these lines might well evolve. I checked this out yesterday with Vint Cerf, Head of the Internet Society in Washington, and he confirmed that this was indeed a possible use for knowbots and in fact had some precedent in the software industry.

Now, if the Internet is decentralized, and costs are minimal for online publication, what role then remains for publishers? Can't anyone put online the unpublished memoirs of Uncle Joe? Of course he can, but that doesn't mean anyone will read it. Word travels incredibly fast on the net, and the online books that thrive will have to rely on recommendations and word of mouth on the net. A meritocracy of ideas may emerge. Advertising may not play the big role it does in printed books; the glitz and the packaging may be supplanted by an emphasis on content. Publishers have traditionally been imprimaturs of quality, and have supported authors in their creation of new works. This model should not change just because the methods of access and distribution have undergone radical change. And would a renewed emphasis on content really be so bad?

Probably the most significant threat online publishing poses to publishers is the invitation to think in new and creative ways about how we can use our online resources to add value to books and to our culture. There's no reward from quaking in fear that our paper kingdom will crumple. Continuing to do what we've always done and hoping it all goes away won't cut it; waiting for things to "shake out" doesn't make sense. Although you can't always identify a pioneer from the arrows in his back, it does make sense to proceed with caution. Undergoing a paradigm shift in the way we live and think might prove uncomfortable and error-prone. But when the screen flashes "Abort Retry Ignore," we all need remember that aborting isn't productive, Ignoring leads to Ignorance, a most unhealthy state. It's the trying and the retrying that will lead to a worthwhile online culture.

Copyright © 1993 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint. laura@obs-us.com

OBS White Papers Part 1