On publishers and software development

July 16, 2008

“The blogosphere has been buzzing since the App Store launched over last weekend with comments about ‘dozy publishers’ who have missed a great opportunity to make their books available on the iPhone. But apart from a few digital PR points scored against competing publishers, there doesn’t seem to me to be any huge value in first mover advantage here for publishers, unless we want to make the decision to become software developers.”

Sara Lloyd has responded over at The Digitalist to the many comments (including ours) on this issue. She strikes a note of caution, and suggests that publishers adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude – in some contrast to her excellent, and must-read, book publisher’s manifesto for the 21st Century.

But what I’m interested in is the suggestion that publishers are not in the business of developing software. I think there’s an interesting discussion here, and a couple of points to be made.

Firstly, publishers – particularly Macmillan – are already in the business of developing software. Macmillan’s MPS Technologies division built the software, BookStore, which runs key parts of many publisher’s businesses, including their own. Indeed, they even launched ebook delivery sites based on this technology, although these appear to have gone offline. The big publishers employ developers for the web, for their IT systems, for much else, most of the time.

Secondly, who better than publishers to craft such software? Most ereader technologies are built by techies who put the technology before the reading experience: the combined skills of typesetters, print designers, editors and technologists that only publishers possess could, with the right direction, produce a far superior ereader app than any we’ve seen so far.

The development of the book has always been driven by publishers. Bookselling is a business, and while I’m far less convinced of the ‘death of the book’ than appearances may suggest, a terminal attitude of ‘wait and see’ does not indicate a healthy, growing industry. Publishers have the tools at their disposal. Why not use them?


  1. Coming into the publishing world from the outside, and from a more techie point of view (I’m working on creating an online community-driven website called CompletelyNovel.com that will link all elements of the book industry together) I have been very surprised by the attitude of a number of publishers who seem to be very happy to just continue doing what they do best – producing books – and being very hesitant to acknowledge that the market is changing. They often have a notion that the developments on the digital/web side do need to be tackled, but are waiting for someone else to take the lead on this. As you mention – they are in a good position to be able to design something that suits the needs of consumers but don’t usually see themselves as the ones that should be doing this.
    It is such a traditional industry that bar a few publishers, most of the innovation is coming from the outside – good news for us, I guess, but I think the readers and writers are losing out.

    Comment by Anna — July 17, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  2. Thanks Anne – I know a lot of people coming from outside the industry see it this way, and it’s quite surprising to them (/us).

    I’ll keep an eye on CompletelyNovel…

    Comment by James Bridle — July 17, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  3. […] On publishers and software development | booktwo.org Booktwo riposte. (tags: iPhone, publishing) […]

    Pingback by thedigitalist — July 18, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

  4. Having worked with a number of publishers on software projects, I completely agree that their input is valuable. There’s a sweet spot that lies between publisher experience and deferring to software experts, and that’s where the best products emerge.

    What I encounter more often than a “wait and see” approach is an over-reliance on large one-size-fits-all platforms. That works well in some types of publishing with uniform content (e.g. journals) but less so with books (especially non-fiction). The trick is in finding economical ways to do custom development on a cookie-cutter budget.

    Comment by Liza Daly — July 18, 2008 @ 7:11 pm

  5. […] position qui semble en décallage de son manifeste, s’étonne avec raison James Brindle. et même des positions de MacMillan dont Sarah Llyod s’occupe (puisque MacMillan développe […]

    Pingback by La Feuille » Archive du blog » Les éditeurs doivent-ils développer des applications logicielles ? — July 22, 2008 @ 8:12 am

  6. […] James Bridle’s (from Booktwo) valuable opinion focused on publishers and software […]

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  7. Most publishers don’t move off the mark unless there is an obviously compelling reason for doing so, usually involving the saving of money, less commonly involving the search for efficiencies in processes.

    Desktop publishing promised to save money and time. We eliminated typesetters but it came with the purchase of computers and networked storage and support people. Production editors needed to be responsible for kerning and trapping and in some cases imposition and creep.

    XML only took hold when it was coupled with lower costs in India. But the increased standard of living in India is putting pressure on wages there and this, along with a devalued dollar, means that the savings associated with off-shore production will not be as attractive in the future.

    Book production, which used to be a craft, is now basically a glorified trafficking position, one step removed from the mailroom.

    Editorial development takes too long and is too risky so this work was left to literary agencies.

    Publishers are looking for the blockbuster best-seller to carry the day rather than doing the long, hard work of nurturing a backlist. A short series of years without a blockbuster is ruinous for a publisher whereas the conscientious, judicious development of a backlist takes more work but can help a publisher weather changes in the market.

    Now the Internet and the iPhone and other attendant gadgets promise new revenue streams if only publishers can find the right business model, develop the right tools/software, and create content in the right format.

    Publishers, who are almost constitutionally adverse to risk, are reluctant to put their toe in this water.

    There is no clear winner in the business model arena. Will users read books on their iPhones? What is the proper price for an iPhone-ready ebook? What about DRM?

    Why work on an iPhone app when others are probably already working on this and could do a better job?

    Why struggle with file formats? This would require changes to production processes and more negotiations with the Indians. Wait for the standard.

    I suppose these questions are precisely the point. These are all answerable questions but better to leave the answering to the publisher sitting in the desk in front of you. You can always look over his shoulder.

    Publishers need to decide what business they are in. Are they selling paper, nicely cut and folded and bound? Or are they selling an experience? If so, is it a cozy, comfortable, curl-up with a codex experience or a digital, on-demand, interactive experience? Is the content enough or do we need to hang some bells and maybe a few whistles on and around the words? The answer is probably yes to all of these questions.

    Today’s publishers are in the business of making money. This is as it should be. But are we building a long-term business that can deliver consistent returns or are we going for the short-term gain and cutting out anything–people, processes, fat, muscle–that don’t have an ROI of six months?

    Over reliance on the quick-win blockbuster has left little money for experiments. We need to find the next best-seller.

    The real answer to the question of whether publishers should be in the software business: yes. If our readers are in these areas, we need to be in these areas. Certainly partnerships with software development companies can help spread the risk and focus each party on the areas they do well in. This is the sweatspot that Liza Daly mentions.

    Other concerns, such as technical support and maintenance and feature enhancements, must be addressed. These concerns imply a longer commitment but they are nothing that can’t be backed away from.

    Comment by Jim Kingsepp — August 8, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

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