“A reference book is essentially a user interface to information.”
I first heard of tech publisher and general pioneer Tim O’Reilly when someone pointed out that putting fruit and non-finance-like items on our cover was similar to O'Reilly's habit of putting animals on their coding books. When I read his line “a reference book is essentially a user interface to information” from 1995 (http://oreilly.com/tim/articles/pubmod.html) it spoke to the web designer in me. It helped me imagine how that explaining stuff through text well is as much a user interface issue as about writing. Some things are best read from start to finish, perhaps on a train or curled up on the sofa, and they might need wide margins so you can write notes. Others demand that you can dip in and out of them quickly, finding what you want at the quickest speed. They are dipped in-and-out-of, searched, bookmarked, with important passages added to notebooks, emailed to collaborators or shared with friends.
The funding book seems to be both a 'sit down and read' and a 'find what you need fast'. Part one (the theory section) is best suited for sofas or sitting on the train; while I doubt that anyone other than myself and Adam have read parts two and three (the directory of funds and incentives) from end-to-end. What’s more, most of part one changes very little, while parts two and three do all the time. Indeed, it seems somewhat unjustifiable in our carbon-threatened world, to keep chopping down trees to keep reprinting the whole 480 page, 250,000 word thing, when some parts change regularly and others much less. The web is so well suited to handle changing data, yet this leads to another problem.
A product vs a service
In practical terms, a book - ignoring its creative and cultural value - is similar to a product like a DVD in that work stops on it for the author once it's sold. Months or years of struggle are finalised in a final few weeks as the proof is signed off and sent to the printer, after which not much more happens. If there are errors, typos or omissions - nothing much can be done, and little more is demanded from the authors beyond the odd reading, interview or book-signing.
Moving to self-distribution - as more and more authors are doing - shifts the creator closer to offering a service. Work on the book (or film, or album, or piece of software) continues after it is completed - marketing and promoting it, getting it into shops and webstores, running a website, dealing with potential and previous customers, handling and redistributing income. Communication around it is ongoing - and it’s a different kind of work arrangement (and is probably why so many filmmakers leave their finished yet unsold films languishing on the shelf to focus on their next one).
But once content is offered online, especially to paying subscribers, its nature has shifted fully from a product to a service. There’s a much greater expectation that it should be up-to-date, while a subscription service, as I learned at Shooting People, has its own demands: to support signups, renewals and those people who’ve forgotten their password but don’t know how to click on links that say ‘I’ve forgotten my password’. The workload has increased, and there’s also a website to support, upgrade, protect from automated hacks. Given the 24/7 global nature of the web, people expect no more than a 24 hour delay in response to a question (I’ve been shouted at when I took more than an hour), which makes it less a full-time job and more a 365-day a year lifestyle. The Guardian doesn't just have to sell newspapers or write stories, it has to keep it's website online 24/7, dealing with all the user and technical issues that come with that.
My goal in life has never been to be doing round-the-clock film finance data entry or customer service, so for a regularly updated service to work it would need a number of people who could share the work, which in turn means increasing the amount of money the book must earn and changes the whole model, challenging the motivation for publishing film funding information. Running an exclusive, pay-walled information service is a big shift from the original ambition of widening access to key film business information to anyone around the world making films that needs funding.
Which opens up a second epic question facing publishing (and all digital goods) - how to balance paid and free? (TBC)
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