Dandelion Distribution and Other Observations from O’Reilly Tools of Change

Jim Hamilton
Mar 11, 2013

The idea behind dandelion distribution is simple. Imagine thousands of dandelion seeds being spread by the wind. Of these, only a few may ever grow into dandelions, but that’s enough. As it relates to e-books, dandelion distribution happens when reproduction and distribution are so cheap as to be virtually free. This idea is encapsulated in the book Spreadable Media by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, and it was also discussed at length during one of the keynote sessions at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference (February 12-14 in New York City).

Panelist Cory Doctorow (more on him at Craphound.com) suggested that book publishers consider replacing their traditional “mammalian intuition” (i.e., the idea that each book is precious and must be protected by any means) with “dandelion intuition” (where it is acknowledged that any individual book has a small chance of success and therefore the strategy should be designed around spreading as many ‘seeds’ as possible). This concept goes against traditional publishing logic, but so did a lot of other ideas at the conference.

‘Digital-first’ or ‘born-digital’ publishing was a central topic at Tools of Change. Digital-first publishing abounds with discussions of metadata and application programming interfaces (APIs) but in the end has its roots in some pretty traditional concepts such as indexing and footnotes (one O’Reilly speaker described these as the original hyperlink). Taking books away from a ‘print-first’ mentality is freeing in many ways. Worried your book is too long? A problem for print, but not so much for an e-book. Feel too constrained by format? Then move away from a fixed format to something reflowable. ‘Author once, deliver multiple’ is the mantra of the age. Likewise the idea that a book’s content can or should change over time, and that a set publication date is an anachronism, and in fact a liability.

Software programs like Microsoft Windows 95 were mocked for having a date (a year, for God sakes!) associated with them. Do you know your software version of Google Docs or Salesforce.com? No, there isn’t one. They are updated on the fly. Such is the way of our app-filled world. And why should books be any different? There were audible groans from the audience when they were told that a book is never finished. Alistair Croll (who chaired the Book as API session with Hugh McGuire) made the point that books that aren’t somehow linked to the world are hermits. The idea that there is more stuff about a book living outside the book is a mind-bender, but it’s obviously true when you start considering reviews, fan sites, book clubs, Cliff Notes, and teacher’s editions.

I found the discussion about books as APIs to be a bit unnerving, possibly because one of the favorite examples (cited by speakers in two separate sessions) was Dracula Dissected. When APIs are lauded for their ability to leverage tags to reuse content from out-of-copyright classics like Dracula, it’s hard to ignore the unintended comparison to blood-sucking parasites. Certainly there are classics that can be mined for all they are worth, but I wanted to see some examples of how APIs could be used for new books today. (By the way, for all those folks in the audience fretting about never-finished books, keep in mind that Bram Stoker is finished with Dracula, and has been for quite some time. So are the many other authors whose classics are now being tagged and resurrected via APIs.)

In this environment of undead content, when the Wednesday afternoon keynote speaker Jeff Jaffe of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) said that his message was “Web = Publishing” (or perhaps even more frightening, “Publishing = Web”), it was pretty clear that a series of wooden stakes were being thrust into quite a few long-held traditional views of publishing, not the least of which was the idea that electronic delivery has freed books from the codex format (i.e, multiple-page bound paper copies). The result is that we’re seeing publishers transforming their tactics and vigorously applying a ‘digital-first’ strategy.

In response to these seismic changes, InfoTrends has recently introduced a new advisory service, Digital Marketing & Media Trends Consulting Service (DMM). Spearheaded by InfoTrends’ Associate Director Bryan Yeager, the service is designed to help technology and services firms, marketers, advertisers, and publishers understand how to harness the power of interconnected media in a rapidly-evolving marketplace. Check out his research on digital media trends in the book publishing industry here.

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