A soft landing on Normandy

Peter Brantley -- May 4th, 2012

As I write, my week is not half over yet, and it’s been full of meetings with startups at various stages of market readiness. I’ve had conversations with folks at the Atavist in New York; Aerbook here in San Francisco, and some visiting founders from a new company in private beta, Valobox. Additionally, I had the honor of participating in a “Future of Publishing” event sponsored by Pearson at Rocket Space in South of Market in San Francisco, with my co-panelists Matt McInnis of Inkling, the Managing Director of FT.com, Rob Grimshaw, and the CEO of Blurb, Eileen Gittins.

It did not take long in my conversations before a common thread became apparent. It gelled in the Pearson event when Matt McInnis asked our audience, “How many here have used Pagemaker? InDesign? Word?” His question targeted a 30 years evolutionary path in software that is about to become obsolete – page-oriented authoring and design. Publishing’s new default is not a page of paper, but a web page, which has dynamic sizes and shapes. Regardless of the kind of content new publishing startups are thinking about building services around, at heart, they are oriented toward the web, not the page. Yet, quixotically, the web itself is not quite ready. For now, startups are building software for tablets with sophisticated processors, built-in networking, tightly coupled user accounts, and a mix of local and remote storage for media: a combination for which current web standards can’t do full justice.

One of my correspondents noted, “We tend to eschew the notion of a ‘book’; we are focused on story-telling.” This is more than just rhetoric: one consequence is that HTML-centric file formats like EPUB3 or KF8 remain partially-functional containers for a limited segment of the range of experiences that are available to software engineers. In some sectors, EPUB3 is getting dissed in the market and I hope that developers can more fully appreciate its capabilities and promise. But for now, if you want to embed a physics engine, you’re building an app. It may be that in a few years, HTML5 and web rendering engines will have integral physics engines, malleable touch support, and a range of other functions now integrated into upper layers of tablet operating systems, but today I’ll count myself lucky if HTML5 is standardizing on a video codec.

Almost every single startup that is delivering authoring tools – either for designing and producing content, maintaining a full-bore content management system, or simply supporting an interim level of annotations or fragmentation – is building their own proprietary web-based layer that is largely HTML5-based yet also capable of linking to software development kits and libraries needed to support the export of rich app experiences. In other words, everything is baroque, and nothing in the standards space works well enough across the range of possible uses to be a default rendering environment. It is very much as if we are back in the Middle Ages scribbling on parchment, whittling our own quills from feathers we have on hand, drawing up whatever ink we have available. Our 21st Century parchment is a world-wide digital canvas, but our quills are hand-crafted.

It will get better, and likely quite rapidly, but what will be left after our whittling is an authoring environment that will be very, very different from what we have known before. We’ll still have plain textual narratives and film, because that’s what we can most easily draft and understand. But we will have very many other things besides, and they are becoming increasingly easy to imagine. In an email exchange discussing the attractiveness of full-featured tablets over dedicated ereaders, Ron Martinez of Aerbook noted, “Much has been written about publishing’s “soft landing” in transitioning to digital format. Text-based product made that possible. But it may turn out to have been a soft landing on Normandy.” For trade publishers particularly, Omaha Beach is not about learning how to publish digitally — it’s about becoming software houses that support publishing functions. That’s a steep organizational cliff to climb.

I think almost anyone who has handled a retina-display iPad knows that this is well-grounded prognosticating. Publishing startups are driven by the opportunities and constraints in software design and engineering. They are fixated more on designing outward focussed authoring environments that build stories, rather than selling individually packaged tales. At present, many story-telling apps are essentially eye- and finger-candy, but these are very early stage efforts. We may never collect apps – or be able to collect and preserve apps – in the same way that we build libraries of physical books. The diversity in hardware, tools, and authoring may be too great, at least for a while, for that to happen. Frankly, even though I have great concerns about this, at the end of the day, I think we’ll figure out new ways of sharing stories.

True digital standardization has yet to come, and we don’t even know where to watch for the vector of its arrival. But these are most exciting days in publishing that I’ve ever seen.

One thought on “A soft landing on Normandy

  1. Laer Carroll

    The virtue of digital standards such as EPUB is device independence. Once a story is converted to the core publishing standards it may be printed on paper, painted on a computer screen, or projected onto clouds in the sky a la the Batman signal.

    The core story remains the same, but details change. A map at the beginning of my fantasy book will display in color on an iPad but in gray-scale on a Kindle. If the map is interactive, clicking on a city icon on an ereader or tablet might zoom in on the city. If the output is printed on paper, no such zoom function is available.

    Device independence can revitalize the printed book. It allows a publisher to use a Dragon press to print a billion copies of Harry Potter: the Adult Years. Or a Gandalf press to print a 5000-copy paranormal romance. Or a Frodo print-on-demand press to print a onesy-threesy run of an eccentric self-published book.

    The various vendors of stories hate this idea. Each wants their own proprietary “standard” to win out over all the others, preserving their own little chunk of the publishing world. The sneakier vendors volunteer to work on international standards committees. There they drag their feet, or introduce “annexes” to the standards which favor their own company. Or at least to ensure their company is not seriously inconvenienced.

    Your “true digital standardization” will never come, for perfection is unreachable. And the world changes, so the “true standard” changes. But the situation is better every day. We have only a three-quarter loaf situation, but that is far better than it was a couple dozen years ago when we had no loaf at all. Be satisfied with BETTER, rather than mourn the BEST.

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