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Publishing Companies Are Technology Companies. Now It's Time For Them To Act Like It

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The death of publishing has been greatly exaggerated.

Though traditional publishers are being threatened from all sides -- the rise of ebooks, competition from other media, the growing shadow of Amazon -- publishers have learned from the failures of the music industry, the futility of closing one's eyes and trying to deny an evolving marketplace. They have conformed to many aspects of digitization, hurrying to convert to required formats and bowing to imposed pricing structures, hoping to not miss the last boat provided by the new marketplace.

However, accepting the future is not the same thing as embracing it, thriving in it. Many of publishers' traditional functions -- printing books, storing and shipping them around the country, maintaining a far-flung sales team -- are becoming less relevant as content moves to digital. Self-publishing is an increasingly plausible option, with some remarkable success stories. While nervous companies typically fight to preserve and protect what's left of their industry, the smart ones figure out how their skills might be applicable in the next. In this new world, how do publishers make themselves valuable and even necessary?

Salvation may lie in the same source as the challenge. Ebooks alone may not require a traditional publisher, but simple ebooks only scratch the surface of the potential of this new realm. Whether we call it transmedia storytelling, interactive fiction, or any other semi-depressing buzzword, we are beginning to see the exciting possibilities: Serialization. Collaboration. Interactivity. Communal reading experiences. Location-aware storytelling. New narrative structures, serving classic storytelling values.

This isn't about killing books, or forcing unnecessary flash into the reading experience; it's about providing new tools to our writers and storytellers, engaging readers in new ways. Some early experiments have been successful, while others have been more possibility than reality -- which is to be expected with any new form, a natural part of the process of discovery. The formative years of transmedia fiction are taking place against a backdrop of hyper-accelerated technology and an uncertain traditional-publishing industry -- at the intersection of startups and panic.

But the potential is clear. Expecting books to be unaffected by these new reading devices would be like expecting cinema to consist of nothing more than filmed plays. True embrace of the emerging formats requires projects more ambitious than simply digitizing a traditional text.

So far, the growth of these evolving forms has been limited by practical obstacles. Unlike straightforward ebooks, transmedia projects can be very difficult for individual authors to undertake on their own. Platforms must be built from the ground up, new markets must be discovered, audiences educated -- all for a single one-off project. These challenges would instantly shrink, however, if many projects were brought under a single umbrella -- essentially, a new-media publisher. Much of the labor would transfer smoothly from one project to the next: a growing library of code, discovery of best practices, usage analytics, and a relationship with a new community of readers. Costs would quickly decrease, and production speed and sales would improve.

Furthermore, the integration of text, design, and technology requires interdisciplinary teams, cooperation, accumulated expertise -- a skillset and expense beyond the reach of most lonely creators. This is the kind of collaboration that publishers have been honing for centuries, groups of editors, artists, and marketers working together on project after project, bringing stories to hungry readers. This infrastructure and expertise is more valuable than ever, and can't be easily replicated, neither by solo creators nor aggressively-disruptive tech companies.

In the olden days (say, 2009), a few publishers did dip their toes in these waters, experimenting with a few innovative projects; these didn't earn enough to justify their start-up costs, and publishers seem to have now largely retreated to straight digitization of standard text projects, occasionally adding a halfhearted "enhanced ebook."

It's true that success for any individual experiment is far from guaranteed, and the form and marketplace are still evolving. But there are rewards for early investments in a nascent medium: ownership of repeatable workflows, an understanding of how authors can bridge the creative divide, creation of reusable technology, and most importantly pioneering the development of a new audience, community, and marketplace.

The real potential of digital storytelling will be uncovered only via iterative experimentation, not by eyeballing each plucky startup's new publishing platform. Today, it's those startups that attract the brightest technologists and creative thinkers, eager to own the production tools and distribution channels, and sound the death knell for old-world publishing. But "content" is often an afterthought for these companies -- public-domain novels, crowdsourced texts, faddy non-fiction; most don't have the ability to produce powerful, original writing or develop talented new authors.

Publishers have a unique opportunity to not just enter an entirely new market but to become the leaders of it, rather than fighting over whatever crumbs are left behind. This will require an embrace of new forms, a culture of innovation, and an investment in research and development, perhaps in the form of an in-house technology incubator that can build upon the organization's wealth of preexisting expertise.

The technology world -- Amazon, Apple, and new startups every day -- is directly competing with publishers for eyeballs and dollars, as traditional barriers continue to fall. If publishers decline to innovate, someone else will; if publishers wait for the ideal path to become obvious, the opportunity will have moved on.

But the opportunity is there. Becoming a pioneer of these new forms will require a leap of faith, but it's a faith that has kept publishers alive and vital for centuries: a faith in writers to continue their long tradition of experimentation, finding new ways to tell eternal stories, and a faith in readers to champion quality and innovation over pale imitations and gimmickry.

Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn are cocreators of The Silent History, a serialized, exploratory novel for iPhone and iPad.