When asked how and how well publishing is reacting to new technology, Tim O'Reilly answered with a question that's indicative of his forward thinking about books, information and business: “I have to ask what you mean by publishing.” Tim O'Reilly has been redefining conventional ideas about how information spreads for a long time. He founded O'Reilly Media in 1978, three years after graduating from Harvard with a degree in the classics. Since then, he and his company have gone on to create all kinds of innovative ways book content, and other kinds of information, can reach its audience. A short list of the company's accomplishments includes publishing the first popular book about the Internet, The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalog, in 1992; sponsoring the conferences where the terms “open-source” and “Web 2.0” were coined; and launching Safari Books Online, the first Web service to host book content, in 2000.
The Twitter Book, a reference guide to the rapidly growing microblogging service (available now as an e-book and soon in print), is one of O'Reilly's newest projects. He coauthored it with Sarah Milstein, and it's a new kind of book, written in PowerPoint and designed to keep up with the fast pace of technology. The book consists of pictures with text about the pictures on the facing page. O'Reilly calls it “a publishing experiment.” “Twitter is changing very fast, therefore anything that has a sustained narrative is going to be out of date,” O'Reilly says. The Twitter Book is structured so that “any particular page could be taken out, replaced, updated, without changing that meta-narrative.”
The Twitter Book represents a new way of reading, or, more accurately, a new adaptation of the book to respond to a way we've been reading for a few years now. According to O'Reilly, “Twitter is a subject where you don't need a sustained narrative. That's very much the structure of Web pages—people are used to reading this way.” O'Reilly is surprised at how slow many publishers are to pick up on the changing reading habits of consumers. “When you see people bemoan the demise of the book,” says O'Reilly, “they fail to understand that many of those narrative books are too sustained. They have a lot of hot air put in them, like business books. Most business books you can read the opening chapter or two and get the idea.” It seems common sense to O'Reilly that some books should exist both online and in print, with enhancements in the online version that broaden the information the book conveys. “Imagine a work of history, and imagine if all the references were actually links—wouldn't that be a fuller expression of a sustained narrative?” he asks. “When you see that book of biography or history, why isn't there the expanded online version in which all of the author's sources are linked?”
So what should publishers be doing? For O'Reilly, “a big part of this is going back to the question: what job does your product do?” He thinks publishers and authors should define their business more broadly. Rather than simply identify as a company that makes books, O'Reilly urges publishers to say things like, “I'm in the entertainment business,” meaning that other producers of entertainment—movies, video games, TV shows—are competitors. He cites the author Tom Clancy as a good example of a forward thinker, one who, for example, set up a company to sell video game rights to his books.
O'Reilly's vision for the future of books might seem like science fiction to some, but he believes some pretty wild things are just a few years away. “In five years, maybe 10, we'll all be wearing glasses that will beam stuff directly onto our retina. Our experience of reading is going to be an augmented overlay of reality,” he predicts. “There are whole classes of books that will just go away. Imagine that world and say, 'Why would I want a travel guide?' For that class of thing, we'll be reading situationally.” O'Reilly imagines a not-too-distant future in which our phones will pull up reference information based on exactly where we are, something that's already happening with some mobile phone apps. “I do think that eventually the cellphone will become wearable, and it will be connecting content into our context,” O'Reilly said.
For today, O'Reilly advocates something simple for publishers: consider your readers and what they want. “If you think about how people are reading,” he says, “you come up with different kinds of products to meet that reading experience.”