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Old Wine, New Bottles

by Laura Fillmore

Part 1

Presented to the Network Advisory Committee of
The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
December 5, 1994

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.
laura@obs-us.com

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things."

--Niccolo Machiavelli, "The Prince" 1469-1527

I am honored to present the experiences of the Online BookStore (OBS) to the Library of Congress, and thank you for inviting me here today. I hope that our two years of experience in publishing books on the Internet will prove useful to you when evaluating the new roles of the Library of Congress in the electronic age suddenly upon us.

Two years--it sounds like so little time, yet living these last two years on the Internet Publishing frontier has been like experiencing a digital version of the Oklahoma Land Rush in fast forward. Two years ago, when we were launching the copyrighted ASCII files for "The Internet Companion" by Tracy LaQuey onto the Internet and starting the Online BookStore, I no sooner would have expected to be sharing a speakers' podium at this august institution, the repository of our country's recorded culture, with a cable company and a phone company, both eager to publish online and to compete for each other's customers (based on what we saw and heard at this meeting yesterday, I hesitate to call these customers "readers")--than the original Oklahoma pioneers would have anticipated seeing their campsites given over to Golden Arches and their progeny transfixed by Beavis and Butthead.

But where both Andy Meckelburg of Bell Atlantic and Joe Waz of Comcast are competing for the bitway into the home, and with each other to offer us a kinetic digital environment in which to work and live, the OBS has been playing with those bits themselves to begin to discover what is and will actually be for sale in this distributed electronic environment.

Full-text publishing on the Internet during these formative years has meant exploring what incarnations present-day books may take on the NII (National Information Infrastructure), and what readers may experience as books and libraries once the ideas and information print publications contain are freed from the confines of paper and glue.

In attempting to address specifically the questions the NAC has raised, it seems necessary to re-evaluate the terms themselves in light of what doing business on the Internet has taught us. The longer we publish on the Internet, the clearer it becomes that the language we've imported from the tangible "real" world ceases to apply in cyberspace. We are faced with conundrums at every turn: does the term "publishing" make sense when suddenly everyone is empowered to publish, when, as Steve Wolff of the NSF said yesterday, "every client, a server"? What is Internet publishing after all, but the making public of words and thoughts, whether in the form of a software manual, .gif files of marketing information from a Mom & Pop florist shop, a multimedia multimillion-dollar multinational phone company's web site, or an eighth grader's love poem. Publishing can mean making public that which is very private, like a diary or a poem, or publicizing products that don't exist yet. Unfortunately, unlike the Eskimos with their hundred words for snow, we have not yet developed a precise language to talk about life in tomorrow's NII.

If, in its Internet incarnation, "publishing" no longer exits in its traditional sense, then, by extrapolation, what is an author, an editor, and even a business? If one puts up a Web page on a server, listing URLs for a given subject area, such as Mayan ruins, is one a publisher, an author, a link editor, an indexer, or an online jeweller selling culture URLs? Even the title assigned to this talk invites scrutiny: while the wine analogy heightens our curiosity by quickening our taste buds and other senses, it doesn't aid us in appreciating the difficulty of using old words from a former era, the paper era with its economy of scarcity, to describe new thought processes and activities in the electronic era now upon us, the age of abundance where dollar values are beginning to be assigned to nonsubstantials such as ideas, electronic presence in the form of "hits" on a particular web site, and recorded collective thoughts continually evolving in an online kinetic environment. To appreciate how we got to this point from the safe and familiar world of books and paper, we begin at the beginning, and ask:

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Internet as a Distribution Mechanism?

We started the Online BookStore (OBS) two years ago, with the serialized release of the ASCII files for "The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking" by Tracy LaQuey (Addison-Wesley, 1992). At that time, this was something of a radical act: "The Internet Companion" was the first general trade book published about the Net, "Internet 101" for English majors, a nontechnical roadmap pointing the way to what seemed, at the time, to be an electronic National Park System. The Internet was poised on the cusp of commercialization, so the announcement of a store on the Net was a somewhat novel act, as was the release of the full text of a current copyright book from a major publisher.

We approached the Internet as primarily a one-way distribution medium in the same way that a book publisher would approach a new chain of worldwide bookstore outlets, or as a video entertainment company approaches a cable company with a video-on-demand deal: we saw the Net as a vast, electronic series of conduits from the source of electronic content, the Online BookStore, to the readers, millions of literate people sitting behind computers around the world.

The first night, after we made a brief announcement to the com-priv mailing list, thousands of people came and grabbed the files for the first chapter--many emailing a welcome to the OBS and asking what the next book would be.

Contrary to most publishers' fears that free availability of online files would squelch demand for print, instead, a successful hybrid sales model emerged: The free availability of the ASCII files for "The Internet Companion" spurred the print sales of the book, and it quickly became a bestseller, spawning many imitators. This hybrid approach may have proved successful because ASCII is ugly, and publishing is to a great extent a presentation-based business. So we could have it both ways: the immediate, unmediated, and free flow of ASCII text on the Net, yielding increased print sales of the book. So two years ago, back in the Late ASCII era, the poor display technology effectively guaranteed increased readership for the printed book--in short, publishing as marketing.

"The Internet Companion" in its online version was a finite and contained publication which used the distribution capabilities of the worldwide networks--as one would use a pipe to distribute water. The fact that many thousands of people read it, indicated strongly that there existed a large book market online. Would they pay?

We decided to find out, and acquired rights to Pulitzer Prize willing poet John Ashbery, and to some of Robert Coover's fictions, as well as acquiring the first serial rights to a Stephen King short story due out in the Fall of 93. We held the first Dead "Live on Line" reading in March of 1993 at the Software Tool & Die in Brookline, Mass., (well before the Rolling Stones got the idea ;-) ), with Ashbery and Coover reading into a work station as we launched the Internet ASCII versions of "Flow Chart" and "Pricksongs and Descants."

With Stephen King, though, ASCII wasn't enough, and in an effort to anticipate every conceivable reader's tastes, we formatted the files in Voyager Expanded Book, Acrobat, ASCII (for people who only wanted email), and HTML. Again, we planned to use the Internet as a worldwide distribution medium, this time putting a price tag on the files themselves, rather than relying on the free distribution to spur the print sales of the book.

The HTML option proved the most interesting and useful of all the file formats, even though Mosaic was just released and not commonly adopted in the Fall of 93. We could publish the story in German and in English using HTML quite easily, which was important because we were releasing it in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair. The HTML experience was important also because of what we were *not* allowed to do. Eager to explore the linking possibilities of Mosaic, we asked Viking Penguin whether we could add links to enhance the background setting of the story: links to a map of LA in the Forties, links to Raymond Chandler's fiction, links to old newspapers--links offering a context to the story. "No," they responded--inserting multimedia links to the content of Stephen King's story altered the content of King's story by redefining or making explicit the context, they thought. So, to illustrate the power of multimedia hypertext publishing on a global scale in that first story published on the Net in Mosaic, we were permitted to link to a little sound file of one lone dog barking once on a server in North Carolina--and that bark was before "The New Yorker" cartoon revealed that "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

We could see that we were not just distributing contained files for static stories--the Internet offered us something different from, and not wholly approved of by the publishing industry itself. Effective distributed publishing does change the content, change the meaning of a book, redefine the very act of publishing itself.

As well as selling the King story files on a per-copy basis, it turned out that the way we made a commercial success of the project was to sell it as a site license for over five-figures to network service providers, thus addressing one of the fundamental conundrums about doing business on the Internet: in order to make money, one has to "give it away for free."

By shifting the payment for the literary work from the reader to the sponsor, whether site licensor or other sponsor, the goal of the publisher shifts in a not so subtle manner: the issue of distribution becomes more one of allowing access: what's for sale when using the site license or the subscription model is the attention span of the readers, the rare and migratory bird called attention.

To capture that attention, precious and worth dollars, we have developed in the past year or so what we call "marketing front ends" -- all or part of a book posted online, serving as a teaser for the hard copy of the book. In order to capture and keep the online readers' attention, and to keep people coming back, we have attempted to customize each marketing front end for its particular audience. This way, the publisher gets two essential components for his marketing dollar: the marketing value of having lots of people see the publication, and secondly, the knowledge about how online users have responded to the project's files .

Our most recent marketing front end is being released this week, the files from Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom", published by Little, Brown (Time Warner). This book began decades ago as a scrap of paper buried beneath the floor of Mandela's jail cell in South Africa; today it is being published on the Internet, featured on servers around the world, and linked to kinetic sites which expand and contextualize the book's contents: for example, there is a news feed sorted on stories coming out of South Africa; maps of the area; the editor in chief for the book at Little, Brown is available by an email form. The Mandela book is available through the OBS in a format unique to the Internet, which at this point will supplement and help sell the paper book, but which in the future might form an alternative to the paper publication itself.

While these full-text publishing efforts have been ongoing, for the past two years we have been receiving a steady, persistent stream of requests for all sorts of books, from all corners of the globe. This has led us to found the BookFinder service: a reader walks, via email, into our store and asks for any in-print book in the English language, and we will fulfill his request. Before our BookFinder service, OBS was exclusively working on the challenges of online publishing and attempting to anticipate worldwide readers' wants by selecting which titles we thought would do well published online; now, like a good bookstore, we listen to the readers and give them what they want. Internauts are essential participants in our online site; they, not us, determine what books are on the shelves.

BookFinder is not a key word search capability or a catalog, it is the wetware, the "fuzzy logic" of knowledgeable humans responding to general queries such as: "I read a book in college which involved 'grokking' and I'd like to reread it but can't remember its name". Our fiction buyer would be able to identify that book and we could ship it anywhere in the world. So in this case the Internet serves as both a communications medium to identify the product that needs to be distributed, in the case cited above, "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein, and as a means to collect monies for that product to be distributed.

This need to respond to users on a personal and non-key-word fashion points to further issues concerning distribution. Like an organic being, the whole Internet population exists in each Internaut, "every client is a server," so to reinforce our collective selves and to realize our distributed potential, in order to succeed, an organization such as the OBS must be more than a one-way broadcast medium--we must respond to and incorporate those constituent minds who define the online bookreading public and involve them in the publishing process.

To that end, we offer 10% off of list price to anyone who writes us a screen of prose on one of two topics: what book changed your life; or what's the best Internet book and why? BookFinder is the merging of the old model of business--a real person-to-person walk-in bookstore, the American Book Center in Amsterdam--with the new business of allowing access to the millions of literate people in the global Internet audience.

If BookFinder is distributing product, how does "distributed" and interactive publishing work? Unlike a traditional book publishing model, where an idea from an author goes in one end of the publishing company and the book comes out the other as a contained product to be distributed to the market through bookstores, the Internet offers the capability to access and record the thinking process of the readers, which is, after all, what defines the publishing process. If readers don't read the books, then publishers wouldn't publish them. Now, for the first time, Internet publishing allows us to record how people read, how their associative thinking processes work in a distributed environment.

Next time you use Mosaic, look under "History" and see the thoughtpath left behind after a session on the Net; that thought process is a new and seminal publishing component--and it is unique to online publishing.

Just to digress for a moment, let's assume that such a "History" capability exists on the system Bell Atlantic profiled yesterday, and, as Andy Mekelburg suggested, an HMO was responsible for the medical area of the cybercity we customers click on for our medical information. Based on the types of medical accesses made from our family's phone number, the HMO could actually begin to anticipate and fill our physical and mental health needs. The phone company, and our HMO, might know before we would when one of our kids was sick, based on his online behavior--a sick "bitlatchkey kid". If the library, which in this demo was unfortunately stacked with only vaportexts, also afforded a History, which the HMO could link into, then the predilection of a user to read Dostoyevsky or Poe might bring the Prozac salesman to the door. Readers must realize that in this environment, such individualized thoughtpaths may be worth far more than the accessed text or the wires and pipes connecting them to the infrastructure--and they must be aware of what kind of contract they enter in to when subscribing to such an online service. The privacy issue at the root of this scenario is only beginning to be explored now.

Successful online publishing means revealing and using ideas and information in a continual state of becoming; it is kinetic, an interactive cluster of ideas. Instead of unidirectional point-to-point distribution of a contained or finite product, internetworking enables publication of a process as opposed to product, which process is distributed over multiple sites in multiple media, and achieves its meaning from the uses people make of it.

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint. laura@obs-us.com

OBS White Papers Part 2