The Internet As Competition To New Non-Fiction Books

About This Series
Things Publishers Fear is an occasional series about the realities of publishing in the modern era. For the record, survival is not guaranteed, nor is it always deserved.

Berger said that the name of the game in this space is SEO: writing content “that search engines want to present their users.” Like the Demand Media CEO when I questioned him about their business model, Berger claimed that his company’s model is not competing with traditional journalism. Rather, Berger said that Suite101 and others compete with “non-fiction publishing.”

For example, he said, in the past if you were re-modeling your house you’d go buy a book on that subject. But now, people just Google it. He claimed that traditional publishers have “not woken up [to this] at all.”

I asked what traditional publishers could do to ‘wake up’? Berger replied that there has been “no response from publishing houses” to topic-based sites like Suite101. The best that traditional publishers have come up with, said Berger, is ebooks. However “the questions of the users are so much more specific” than what ebooks can address, he continued. “What rules in this space is topic expertise” – which he noted is what Suite101 is a platform for.

Content Farms 101: Why Suite101 Publishes 500 Articles a Day

Apologies for starting this post with one extensive quote and then following it, almost instantly, with another, but it will make sense very soon.

The potential of Google Books is that by supplying information from a vast accessible anywhere database you reduce the overall demand for new or fresh paid content. What’s even more frightening is that Google is a private company and access to that enormous database will be, for all intents and purposes, at their whim.

Things Publishers Fear: #2 ~ Google

I read the ReadWriteWeb post with interest today and it reminded me of why publisher fear Google. It reminded me too of a thought offered up by Tim Spalding in response to another very interest blog post (comment, post):

I haven’t made up my mind about the net effect of all the change. What bothers me about ebooks is that, so far, the positive effect is not very substantial. So far, ebooks feel mostly like a change in medium, with some minor gains for portability and instant access, not a true leap. Then again, computers at first looked like better slide rules, so I expect some leaping to take place.

All told, I worry in two directions:

First, the “treasures to come” may not be treasures at all. Was the TV a net gain for society? I’m not so sure. On average, it made us less social, less happy, murdered many richer forms of entertainment and made us fat and, until very recently, limited our options to a scary degree. I don’t see anything so bad coming for ebooks, but I am worried that ebooks will merely collapse into the internet. The internet is great, but there’s a lot to be gained from what will come to seem the boring limitations of a book. Maybe I’m wrong.

That idea of books collapsing into the net, that intrigues me. It intrigues me because Google is doing that right now, it’s Editions product will be cloud based blurring the difference between book and web.

Suite101 is also doing it too, but in a different way. Instead of relying on the old content from books that may or may not be useful, as Google is, it is following the Demand Studio model of creating cheap content in vast amounts designed to answer specific question.

Suite101 is creating the same kind of beast as Google is creating with its books database, a searchable and relevant database of content that answers questions and reduces the demand for new generic published material. Even if we imagine that the demand might increase it is clear that the value of new content where relevant content exists is certainly lower than before.

Reframe this debate
There is lots of talk about how curation is a key tool for publishers in the modern era and I agree, but we underestimate the ways in which curation can happen. Suite101 is curating the Cognative Surplus that Clay Shirky talks about and harnessing it to its own advantage and it’s reader’s demands.

Publishers could be doing that for niche subjects as easily as Suite101. Publishers, with experts in certain fields already on their books on niche subjects, SHOULD already be doing it.

The challenge for most publishers is first to realize there IS a challenge and that responding to it is less about social media, ebooks and fancy apps (though they all have a role) and more about rethinking the way you conceive content and how and where you deploy that content to engage and build an audience.

It would be a shame if the companies who have cultivated quality content for so long don’t grab the opportunity that exists and instead allow newcomers to usurp their role, but if that is what they choose …

3 thoughts on “The Internet As Competition To New Non-Fiction Books

  1. Great post.

    I don’t know so much that that is what they (publishers) want as how it will all come about. All the major publishing houses combined, don’t have the deep pockets and technological depth that google has. They’re trapped between two worlds, in a way. On the one hand, they need to adapt to what is happening technically and socially with books and platforms and they seem to want to, but at the same time, most of their money comes from “traditional” sources. You divert funds from one to another, but it’s a stretch.

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