The summer heat in Milan, Italy, is enough to drive anyone indoors, but with the excellent one-day summit If Book Then: Summer Edition, over 80 leading publishers had a very good excuse to find themselves inside at the beautiful Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Organized by one of Italy's innovators in digital publishing and ebooks, Bookrepublic, The program focused on science, technology, and medicine (STM) publishing, although e-book and journal issues were broadly considered and attendees reflected the depth of European publishing, with an understandable concentration on the Italian publishing industry.
The first part of the conference sketched the broad strokes on how publishing is being transformed by web-based technologies and opportunities, with resulting changes in how authors produce and distribute content. My talk discussed the emergence of Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft in publishing, and new developments in scholarly journals such as PLoS Currents and PeerJ. Succeeding talks by Paola Dubini of Bocconi University, Baldur Bjarnason, Javier Celaya of DosDoce, and Nellie McKesson of O'Reilly Media all highlighted the fundamental underlying change that publishing is undergoing: once you start publishing on the web, innovation becomes permanent.
As Bjarnason noted, online publishing supports authoring in a manner quite different from traditional publishing: design, layout, and authoring are intermingled in a fashion contrary to the linear nature of previous workflows. Furthermore, writing for the web means that we will never finish technical specifications and formats; as the web evolves, so too will the things we produce. Web-based production enables platform-based publishing that focuses not on journals or books, but on tools and services.
In a nutshell, these tools and services provide a mechanism for other people and other organizations to publish on their own behalf. The perceived worth of the greatest academic publishers of the prior age, even for deeply conservative academic promotion and tenure, necessarily lessens when PLoS can build new journals such as Currents out of the Annotum Wordpress frameworks. Editing and curation are themselves reimagined when academic "altmetrics" judge the value of works after their publication instead of before it, as well as when Goodreads is a better environment for discovering a good book than the New York Times Book Review.
This brought forward significant discussion around the value of brands. I overstated the case by hypothesizing that the value of all brands would diminish significantly in the years ahead; Paola Dubini was more nuanced, suggesting that brands would continue to have great value, but the question was ultimately, "which brands?" It may be more likely that the brands that have coherence for consumers will be the largest technology companies, or platforms like Inkling, PeerJ, and PLoS that emerge to fill specific production needs in specialized domains such as academic publishing.
What was most surprising was the general acceptance, perhaps apart from the STM publishing representatives, that the value of publishing brands themselves will diminish as the work involved in publishing becomes redistributed. This tension became a central insight for the meeting. In many ways, STM authoring and publishing are becoming commodified around web technologies under the impact of the same disruptions as trade publishing.
Nellie McKesson's short introduction to iBooks Author highlighted the tradeoffs of powerful, but proprietary, authoring environments, and she was one of at least five speakers to note the game-changing nature of Inkling's Habitat authoring environment for higher-end collaborative, media-rich projects such as textbooks and travel guides.
And yet it was the very mention of these tools that highlighted the extent to which web publishing has started to dissolve the differences between trade and STM publishing workflows, particularly at the authoring stage. Most remarkably, as Marco Ferrario of Bookrepublic later pointed out, this growing similarity comes despite earlier, significant technology adoptions by STM companies, who produce complex, highly-structured content that already supports interaction, data display, and simulations. And yet, these investments are overwhelmed by shifts in publishing that arrive from a fuller embrace of the web. When any author can use Pressbooks, Aerbook Maker, iBooks Author, or collaborate in an Inkling-based authoring effort, many of the most significant advances in STM publishing workflow and content management seem now to be sharply reduced in value. As Pete Binfield remarked of PeerJ's new platform, "[w]e have a new type of publication model which allows us to knowingly strip out what is extraneous to the process of publication."
Nothing could highlight more the depth of the changes confronting publishing. Although conferences specific to special domains such as STM and academic publishing will continue to be worthwhile, insights from across publishing fields will find increasing salience as we reinvent what it means to publish.
For me, a short mid-day excursion into the heart of Sacra Cuore's library served as a reminder that every epoch has its own disruptions. Beautiful 15th Century illuminated manuscripts written on vellum would in a few short years be printed on a press; clay Sumerian tablets from ages long before permanently lost their place to ink. It is too early to know the relation between internet and paper publishing, but the program at If Book Then: Summer Edition reminded me that the changes we're now going through will prove no less significant.