Tim O’Reilly

Publishing Industry, Ebooks, or the Practice of Publishing

An archive, in reverse date order, of articles, interviews, and talks about publishing and ebooks.

The Publishing Point Interviews

In this series of videos, Michael Healy interviews me at The Publishing Point in New York, September 29, 2010.

Part 1: My original business model for my company was a one liner: “interesting work for interesting people”. At some point I realized that what we were really doing was changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators. That became then our mission. So publishers need to think about what job they do in the world.

Part 2: What is necessary for a publisher is to answer the question: what do you really do? It’s not just about putting words on paper and binding them. Some outgrowths of publishing are natural, like seminars if you are a business book publisher. An important motto for us at O’Reilly is “create more value than you capture.”

Part 3: What are the hard things that publishers do? It’s not about picking out what’s best or who is the best author. Publishers haven’t always done that well! At O’Reilly we just try to focus on what matters, on what people need to know about. The real questions are more about reaching the consumer—how to do that, in fact—and what is the right “form” that is going to get people excited.

Part 4: Why do people read? Is it to pass the time, to escape, to become informed, to change one’s viewpoint? How a publisher answers these question may determine what will get published. On the practical side, one of the more important and urgent questions is what is the right price to sell the greatest number of books, particularly e-books.

Part 5: More on e-books and the future: It’s more important to care about something other than the preservation of one’s company. The people who are lit up by the future are going to be pursuing that future. There could be some really interesting innovations around book clubs or social reading. One of the big challenges or risks for a new company is to be willing to take things that others might throw away.

Part 6: What is quality? This is a hard question to answer in the industry. The role of libraries is discussed in response to a question from the audience as well as what a library might look like in the future. The most compelling thing I find in a print book is when it is beautiful.

Part 7: We should be trying hard to grow the digital aspect of publishing and looking for new business models to do that. The good news is that this electronic ecology is going to get better.

The (Tim) O'Reilly Factor — May 2010. Publishers' Weekly interviewed me recently about the Tools of Change (ToC) conference in New York in February, 2010. This interview covers my views of the publishing industry, particularly ebooks, the devices, and the big three competing in this arena: Google, Apple, and Amazon.

When you have a new market, it takes a while for the economic engines of it to become clear… But we already have a real economy of ebooks. Are there tradeoffs? Yes. There is some piracy, of course. But I look also at the opportunities. More than 60% of our e-book sales come from countries where we have no physical book distribution, so we have this huge expansion of our market as a result of e-books.
That's part of our vision with ToC, to get publishers together to share what works. That's why we spend a lot of time evangelizing the idea that it's important for publishers to share data, to tell their stories, talk about innovations that work, and to be challenged.

In a more direct way, my presentation at the ToC conference itself covers the challenges of publishers in the digital era. What do publishers need to be really good at?

I'm not saying not to be creative and innovative, but a lot of what you do (for authors) is the boring stuff. You need to be really good at production, distribution, pricing, channel management, marketing, and sales.

This is one of the reasons I give for why I think that there will always be publishers.

Book Search Should Work Like Web Search — May 2006.

As everyone reader of this blog ought to know [key posts], I'm a big fan of the Google library project, which is cutting the Gordian knot of orphaned works for which publishers no longer know the ownership. Scanning makes sense for these books. But it doesn't make sense for books that are already available in some kind of electronic format. The most advanced publishers already have their books in an XML repository, but even the most backwards have at least PDFs that could be searched.
Three things ought to happen to speed up the development of the book search ecosystem:
  • Book search engines ought to search publishers' content repositories, rather than trying to create their own repository for works that are already in electronic format. Search engines should be switchboards, not repositories.
  • Publishers need to stop pretending that "opt in" will capture more than a tiny fraction of the available works. (I estimated that only 4% of books every published are being commercially exploited.)
  • Book search engines that are scanning out of print works in order to create a search index ought to open their archives to their competitors' crawlers, so readers can enjoy a single integrated book search experience. (Don't fight the internet!)"

Long Tail Evidence from Safari and Google Book Search — May 2006. A Radar blog post in which I analyze the data from usage of our books on Google Book Search and Safari to make the case that searchability increases usage and discovery, confirming the assertions I made in my 2002 essay Piracy is Progressive Taxation:

A recent study by Roger Magoulas and Ben Lorica of O'Reilly Research provided strong data to support the assertion that online access drives usage of content that is generally not available in print. We compared sales reported through Nielsen Bookscan for the fourth quarter of 2005 with access logs from both O'Reilly's Safari Books Online service and from Google Book Search. The result provides compelling support for Chris Anderson's "long tail" theory.

Only 4% of Titles Are Being Commercially Exploited — November 2005. A Radar blog post in which I present the analysis of the number of orphaned works that will potentially be made available through Google Book Search.

I believe that the AAP's position is intellectually dishonest. They are pretending that opt-in is a real solution to the orphaned works problem, when by the numbers, it clearly is not. And at the same time they are resorting to scare tactics, calling the project "a license to steal", when in fact the proper analogue is to what Google already does on the web—and we all know how much value that has created.

Search and Rescue — My September 2005 New York Times op-ed about the lawsuit by the Authors' Guild and the Association of American Publishers over Google Book Search. (Registration Required)

AUTHORS struggle, mostly in vain, against their fated obscurity. According to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales from major booksellers, only 2 percent of the 1.2 million unique titles sold in 2004 had sales of more than 5,000 copies. Against this backdrop, the recent Authors Guild suit against the Google Library Project is poignantly wrongheaded.

GAO Report: Tim O'Reilly's Letter to Congressman Wu — September 2005. In March of 2004, Congressman David Wu of Oregon made a request to the General Accounting Office (GAO) for a report on the high cost of college textbooks. The GAO report was recently released, and confirmed the fact that the price of college textbooks has nearly tripled from 1986 to 2004. I wrote this letter to Congressman Wu referencing O'Reilly's solution: SafariU.

Read/Write Web Interview: Web 2.0 — November 2004. In Part 1 of this Read/Write Web interview, I talk with Richard MacManus about the Web 2.0 Conference, the relationships between Apple and the web and Microsoft and the web, and data ownership and lock-in. In Part 2, we explore business models for web content, including discussion of RSS. And Part 3 focuses on eBooks, social networking, collaboration, and Remix culture.

State of the Computer Book Market — April 2004. We've launched a new market research group at O'Reilly. Its mission is to develop quantifiable metrics for the state of technology adoption. Aided by Nielsen BookScan sales data, which shows us trends in what people are buying, we're able to evaluate trends in technology adoption that should help us do a better job of forecasting technology growth patterns. Tim O'Reilly shares some of the analysis.

A FOSDEM Interview: Reinventing Open Source — February 2004. I'll be speaking at FOSDEM this year on the subject of how next-generation applications are changing the rules of the computing game. In this interview, I talk about O'Reilly's book publishing program, past and present, and my goal to create the maximum value for users, developers, and everyone in the software ecosystem. Today that means coming to grips with the way the computer landscape is changing, giving up old open source battles from the 1980s and 1990s, and focusing on how we might reinvent open source in this age of the Internet. (Slides from my talk are now available in PDF: The Open Source Paradigm Shift [4.4MB].)>

My fundamental premise is that the world we all grew up in--the world of both Microsoft and the Free Software Foundation--is fundamentally challenged by the Internet. The Internet (not Linux) is the greatest triumph to date of the open source approach, yet it has changed the rules of software deployment so fundamentally that many of the techniques embraced by the open source community as first principles don't necessarily give the desired results. We need to reinvent open source in the age of the Internet. My talk gives some suggestions for what we need to think about.

The Future of Technology and Proprietary Software — December 2003. In celebration of its 25th anniversary, InfoWorld did a feature on where technology has been and where it's headed: 25 Years of Technology. Tim O'Reilly answered some questions for that piece about the future of technology and proprietary software. Many of his comments were included in the article, but here they are in their entirety, as well.

The Economics of Writing on Computer Topics — November 2003. How important is timeliness in computer book publishing? Can niche books succeed? What about titles that are gimmicks? These questions were posted to the Studio B Discussion List. I say timing is about more than being first to market on a technology. It's about being first to market for a market. Here are some "in the trenches" stories of O'Reilly publishing.

An Interview with PC Pro — July 2003. In Part 3 of this interview with PC Pro, I talk about the O'Reilly titles that make me most proud, the technology areas we plan to write about, and some of my favorite books of all time.

Head First, Hacks, Online Publishing, Killer Apps — July 2003. In this lunchtime chat with JavaRanch, we covered a lot of ground. I might summarize the whole interview this way: You don't make a movie by pointing a camera at a stage play.

Repeated Misconceptions About eBooks — A July 2002 response to a Washington Post article that once again, misses the point about eBooks.

There will always (I hope) be print books, but just as the advent of photography changed the role of painting or film changed the role of theater in our culture, electronic publishing is changing the world of print media. To look for a one-to-one transposition to the new medium is to miss the future until it has passed you by.

2002 Isaiah Thomas Award — April 2005. Rochester Institute of Technology made me the 23rd recipient of the Isaiah Thomas Award for Publishing. This page links to the PDF of the booklet they made for the event, which collects various things I've written. Culled mostly from these pages, but put together into a somewhat embarrassing encomium.

Information Wants to Be Valuable — My May 17, 2001 contribution to the web debate in Nature on the future of scientific publishing and electronic access to primary research literature.

What many people fail to realize is that both Larry Wall and Bill Gates have a great deal in common: as the creators (albeit with a host of co-contributors) of a body of intellectual work, they have made strategic decisions about how best to maximize its value. History has proven that each of their strategies can work. The question, then, is one of goals, and of the strategies to reach those goals. The question for publishers and other middlemen who are not themselves the creators of the content they distribute, is how best to serve those goals. Information wants to be valuable. Publishers must focus on increasing the value, both to its producers and to its consumers, of the information they aggregate and distribute.

P2P and Copyright — March 2001. A posting on the StudioB mailing list in which I defend Larry Lessig against an attacker, and explain some of the reasons why Lessig (and I) are opposed to some of the "Digital Rights Management" schemes out there.

Lessig's point (and mine, because I've been deeply influenced by his thinking) is that as the various content industries are bemoaning the technological dangers to their current systems, and demanding expanded legal protection, there are also technological trends that are equally compelling pushing in the other direction. That is, just as Napster and its ilk make it easier to share files, content protection systems are being designed to take away rights that we now take for granted.

Amazon.com Interview: Tim O'Reilly — An extended interview I did with amazon in February 2001 about my editorial philosophy, open source, and eBooks.

Edwin Schlossberg said, "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." This is true of fiction as well as nonfiction, of poetry as well as scientific papers. The ways that you create that context differ from format to format, but if you understand that a big part of your job is building a framework within which your reader will work, and upon which he or she will elaborate, you're a good part of the way toward becoming a successful writer.

The Ecology of E-Book Publishing — August 2000. A rough transcript of a talk I gave at the Digital Rights Management and Digital Distribution for Publishing conference held August 15th and 16th, 2000, at the Hotel Niko in San Francisco. Contrasts my early experience as a book publisher with my early experience as a web publisher, and draws some lessons for eBook publishing.

Now, I believe that distribution systems exist for the same reason that we have alveoli in our lungs. They create surface area. You know, any of you who have been in publishing know that there are two classes of customers. There are the people who already know that they want your product, who can come to you directly, and then there's the people who are going to encounter your product by chance. For most of book publishing and certainly for most of trade book publishing, the people who are going to encounter your product by chance are far greater in number than the people who are going to seek it out.

Selling Dismally? — April 2000. A posting to the StudioB mailing list in which I talk about the state of returns in the publishing industry. In particular I attack the "fishing for bestsellers" approach of most publishers.

The typical sales pattern for books involves selling in as many copies as the publisher can possibly persuade the channel to buy. The idea is that if you stock up the shelves, the books will be visible to end customers, and authors and publishers won't lose sales when customers can't find the book. This is true in theory, but like a lot of things, can have some real drawbacks in fact. Due to the realities of bookstore budgets, a book that is heavily stocked must sell heavily, or be returned. Due to the realities of buyer psychology, a book that is heavily returned is less likely to be reordered, even if it would continue to sell.

Beyond the Book — At the Waterside Publishing Conference in March 2000, I was invited to speak on a panel called "Beyond the Book." The organizers were no doubt expecting a few words on what O'Reilly & Associates is doing with eBooks,with the online sites we publish, like xml.com, and with our technical conferences. But instead, what I spoke about was why O'Reilly has always reached beyond the book in all of our publishing efforts:

I like to compare business (or life for that matter) to an extended road trip. Say you want to travel America by the back roads. You need gas for your car, food and water for your body. Especially before heading across Death Valley or the Utah salt flats, you'd better be darn sure that you have enough gas in your tank. But you certainly don't think of your trip as a tour of gas stations! What's the real purpose behind what you do?

Publisher or Retailer — January 2000. Is Fatbrain a publisher? Should it refer to itself as one? Would it do better with another economic model? In this posting from 20 January 2000 to the StudioB Computer Book Publishing mailing list, I respond to Chris MacAskill, CEO of Fatbrain.com, about defining eMatter's function.   See also Tim O'Reilly on Ebooks:  Past, Present and Future, a January 12, 2000 posting to the same list, which was also archived on the StudioB web site. I returned to the subject on August 16, 2000.

By saying that you "pay a 50% royalty" you are implying that the relationship you have with your authors is not the relationship of a distributor/retailer to a publisher, but the relationship of a publisher to an author. If you said "you set the price, and we keep a 50% commission" or "you set the retail price, and sell it to us at a 50% discount", you'd be making clear that you aren't performing the functions of a publisher, and that, far from being a far more advantageous deal than that offered by traditional publishers, you are in fact offering much the same deal on ebooks that you have worked out with publishers in print. Instead, you used language that implied that traditional publishers were taking advantage of their authors, and that this new medium was a great opportunity to redress that inequity.

Slashdot Interview: Tim O'Reilly Answers — In this September 1999 email interview, I answered questions from slashdot readers about everything from ebooks to open source. But most of the questions focused on publishing.

I would say that the ability to organize your thoughts clearly is the most important skill for a technical writer. Putting things in the right order, and not leaving anything out (or rather, not leaving out anything important, but everything unimportant), is far more important than trying to write deathless prose. The best writing is invisible, not showy. My favorite quote about writing (which came from a magazine interview that I read many years ago) was from Edwin Schlossberg: "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think."

Constantly Updated Online Books — February 1999. In this StudioB mailing list posting, I take issue with the idea that online publishing will lead to a world in which books are routinely kept up to date all the time.

This isn't to say that you can't produce various kinds of updates or supplements, or create a space (say online) where new and interesting things happen. But it's a real myth that the limitations on updating books have to do with manufacturing time and cost.

Re. The Future — In this September 1998 posting to the StudioB mailing list, I take exception to the idea put forward by one list member that eBooks will make it possible for authors to throw off publishers and make their fortune by themselves.

So it's the same advice that you'll always hear from me: write books that serve a real audience and meet real needs—and that means writing books on subjects that aren't already exhaustively covered, or about to be by the time your book comes out—and you have a unique opportunity to succeed. To actually capitalize on that opportunity, of course, you have to know your audience and how to reach them, and keep at it until they start telling each other about your product. (That's the classic definition of a market: a group of customers who reference *each other* when making buying decisions. That's what you ultimately need to succeed as a publisher, not some magic bullet. Figure out what it will take to get people saying "This is the book you've got to have.") In the end, the web is just another channel. All the rest of what goes into a successful publishing business stays the same.

Publishing Models for Internet Commerce — June 1995. This was my "stump speech" through most of 1995 and 1996. I wrote up a version of it as an article for oreilly.com in June 1995, probably around the same time as I gave it at the Internet Society Conference Inet 95 in Hawaii. Most of the links are out of date, since many of them point to GNN, which we sold to AOL not long thereafter, and which soon disappeared. However, much of what I said still holds true.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Internet over the next few years is the need to commercialize its activities in a way that is consistent with its history and its technology. In this regard, some of the most useful economic models come not from telephone service, cable television, or even the computer industry, but from print publishing.
Here, there is a similar global information marketplace with low barriers to entry, participation by millions of players, and a variety of coexisting economic models, ranging from free information supported by advertisers or other sponsors, subscriptions, and "by the glass" (or at least the bottle) information purchase. This market is further distinguished by a distinct lack of vertical integration: that is, the creation of intellectual property, manufacturing, sales and marketing, and distribution tend to be handled by separate entities, creating a rich ecology of entrepreneurial niches for both large and small players. Finally, the "editorial act"—the creation of products and brand identities that stand out from a sea of information based on distinctive points of view—will be a key to the development of future information services on the Internet.