Simon Groth, When the Web is the World, April 13th 2012
In the unbounded networked reality of books, the most valuable service a publisher can provide is not to make whole books available to the world, but to create new and interesting relationships between things on the network: between words and other words, between books and other books, and between readers.
But none of this has to happen exclusively in the strange foreign country of the internet, an other-place where we “go online”. When the web is the world, these relationships exist seamlessly and indistinguishably between digital and physical things too. A non-fiction text that is discussed by a class of secondary school students in a shared physical space (the classroom) and shared time (third period – Modern History) may be annotated by other readers, now and in the future, here and elsewhere, who contribute to the very same discussion. In such an environment, the value from the publisher is not in providing the original text, but in creating services, tools and platforms that make it easier for this distributed, networked, asynchronous conversation to flow.
Other structures of traditional publishing also melt and shift in a networked world. If books are not containered ‘things’ – be they physical or digital – our existing understanding of concepts like stock, retail, returns, distribution, rights, licences and even authorship are all challenged.
The smart publishers today talk about the format-neutral workflow. They have realized that creating a thing, to be converted into another thing, is an inefficient way to serve up content to a very large number of people who wish to exercise their personal choice over how, when and in what format they experience books.
But as the web becomes the world, the publishing of the future needs not only to be container-neutral, but containerless. Not a manufacturer of the telephone or even the wireless signal, but the 1930s radio operator constantly plugging and replugging wires to put people in contact with one another. The post-digital concierge who creates meaningful experiences by connecting us with ourselves.