Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The wisdom of Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly is a publisher and general computer guru whose thinking about the interaction of the internet and publishing has been recommended here more than once. On 18 May 2005, for instance, I referred to his 2002 essay, in which he made a number of telling points: the most notable, to my mind, being that 'Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.' And again, on 28 February 2006, I referred to Tim O'Reilly's definition of Web 2.0.

Now, thanks to John Sundman, I have been pointed to some other most interesting material. On O'Reilly Radar, for instance, you can find the results of an analysis undertaken by O'Reilly Research. It's a longish article, and calls for some concentration, plus a study of the comments and discussion afterwards.

My interpretation of the data is that the internet creates a much more level playing field for writers and publishers than does the high-street bookstore. In other words, making books available online -- in one form or another, whether complete texts or samples -- enables readers to find, and perhaps buy, such books much more readily than does the average madhouse which currently masquerades under the name bookshop.

Here on this blog we tend, perhaps, to concentrate on fiction, which may lead us to overlook the fact that most books are non-fiction of one type or another. In my opinion, non-fiction writers are going to find that Web 2.0 is really good news. And not only in terms of sales: as Lynne Scanlon has pointed out, a book can provide benefits other than simply through royalties; and the better known that book is, the greater the benefits.

John Sundman also led me to another piece by Tim O'Reilly, this time entitled Publisher, be very, very afraid? Actually this is a quote from the New York Times headline in reference to Kevin Kelly's recent article Scan this book. Kelly's article included, among other things, an argument in favour of a universal, free digital library that would be available to everyone, even 'elderly people in Peru'.

Scan this book, published 14 May 2006, got a cool reception in some quarters, notably from Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly. Nelson was alarmed by Kelly's comment that the original purpose of copyright was as an incentive to keep a creator working, whereas the 1998 congressional extension of copyright 'now exist[s] primarily to protect a threatened business model.' And among some of those who commented on Sara Nelson's editorial, the Kelly piece seems to have engendered abject terror. The idea that present copyright laws might not be in the best public interest upset a few people (but not me -- see my comments on the Nelson article at the PW site).

Well, Tim O'Reilly's point is that much of this alarm at Kelly's ideas is misplaced. 'There is,' he says, 'a lot to learn in the new world, but the biggest fear that publishers should be thinking about is the fear that they will be displaced by new publishers who are better at mastering the [changed] rules of business than they are.'

As with the first O'Reilly essay, this one has some enlightening comments attached to it. There is the parent, for instance, whose teenage daughter has built up a small but international online audience for her music. And there is the thinker who proposes the following thesis: 'The entire publication industry, all media, will be reduced to four businesses -- retail, reviewers, librarians, and content creators.' (O'Reilly disagrees.)

As for the copyright issues raised by the Kelly article: well, I am in favour of observance of the law. However, as Macaulay pointed out, in the House of Commons in 1841, bad laws are ignored and flouted. And if copyright law, or certain aspects of it, comes to be seen as a barrier to the public interest, something is going to have to give. Compromises are going to have to be made.

And, of course, before you get too panicky about that, remember O'Reilly's main point. The smart thing to do is not to stand there wringing your hands, but to figure out a way to make the new technology work to your advantage.

One of O'Reilly's commenters says this:

Consider Michael Tiemann's "Metcalf's law" economic analysis of FLOSS -- very relevant, I think, to your own view of Web 2.0: "The value of a network is proportionate to the square of the number of users." The potential value, therefore, of the cross-linked, universally annotatable library is vast. Is copyright law enough to lead us to resist that potential value? I would think not -- rather, the assumption of such a library should be a dominant factor in planning for the next few years. (I say that copyright law is not strong enough here because it is unenforcable beyond a certain boundary and, if rivals outside of that boundary begin to realize the value of the hyper-participatory-library, those inside the boundary will have no choice but to adapt by emulation.)
I don't know whether this stuff interests you at all, but if you're a publisher you really ought to wrestle with it, whether you find it interesting or not; and, if you're a writer, all the more so. The comments on this second O'Reilly piece are, by the way, several times longer than the original article itself, and will take you some time to absorb.