Major entertainment media remains, shall we say, smug in the knowledge that the edge they retain over independent producers of content is distribution (also marketing, but that’s another post). It’s a well-earned smugness, make no doubt about it. When it comes to theatrical distribution, until the universe goes digital, it’s a tough thing to get thousands of prints into theaters. For music, well, even as digital downloads grow, physical CDs are still the top sellers.
And books? Well, we all know that physical books remain very popular. And most physical books seem happiest being printed up in mass quantities and shipped to bookstores (or, rather, shipped to warehouses for shipping to bookstores). Economies of scale and all that. The more you print, the theory goes, the cheaper the product.
This simple economic truth has kept smaller players on the fringe of the book market for decades, heck, centuries. And, frankly, if you’re looking to move thousands of units, it’s still a good option. But today’s content producers aren’t necessarily looking to move thousands of units. Different economic needs are emerging, and, hello!, different ways of getting content — digital and physical — to consumers are emerging right alongside them.
For example, SharedBook, a sort of print-on-demand service, is designed to provide custom books to customers at reasonable prices in a reasonable amount of time (full disclosure: as SharedBook was a sponsor of the recent O’Reilly’s Tools of Change conference, I probably drank their wine or enjoyed their hospitality in some other manner; naturally, this would never influence my journalistic ethics). I say “sort of” because the company offers more than books. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
SharedBook calls its product “reverse publishing” — meaning it turns web content into printed matter (as opposed to the publishing model of taking printed material and figuring out how to make it “webby”). By allowing users to mix a variety of content from a variety of sources — your blog, your photos, your mother’s comments about your memories of your childhood — to create a publication that is customized for your needs.
Let’s play with an example. When I met with Caroline Vanderlip, SharedBook’s CEO, she started off with a great example of new site they were working with: one devoted to knitting. Regular readers will recall that I do knitting knitting. Sometimes you just have to step away from the keyboard. For me, it was a perfect example of how the product works — a perfect example of reverse publishing.
There are a lot of great, smart, innovative knitters who are offering up really cool patterns on the web. And not only patterns, but tips and tutorials. And while cruising through a blog’s archives is a great way to waste an afternoon, what if the blogger thought, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be cool to collect some of my best content and put it in a book? People could then take my site with them wherever they go.”
The blogger could create a book (that can be sold to her customers) that mixes various elements of her site (including those ever-helpful pictures that show what the project should look like). Using a templated, yet customizable system, a book that reflects the blog can be produced (note: at the moment, this only works with Blogger).
And sold. Ah yes, sold. Prices range from $19.95 (softcover) to $24.95 (hardcover) for a full-color, 20-page book. Okay, not bargain basement prices, but pretty darn good. Also, there’s a bit of promotion happening, since the service just officially launched. From the website:
The first 100 bloggers to add the Blog2Print widget to their blogs will receive a FREE 20-page hard cover book, valued at $24.95. If you are one of the first 100 to place the Blog2Print widget on your blog, we will email you a coupon valued at $24.95 to use at checkout. Offer good through July 31, 2007.
Never let it be said that I do not actively seek bargains.
The company’s premier customer is called Legacy.com. The site is devoted to, well, obituaries and creating ways for people to come together, even when separated by distance. Legacy utilizes the SharedBook technology to create memory books. By adding guest book-type features and images, you can create something that does a loved one’s legacy proud. It’s not surprising that this type of niche publishing is a perfect fit for products such as SharedBook. Rather than going after large-scale print runs, providing a quality product to select audiences at a reasonable price.
It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to consider the possibilities that SharedBook offers to other kinds of publishing ventures. While certain literary circles still sniff at anything that might be considered “self-publishing”, the truth of the matter is that small-scale, individualized production might very well be the future for niche authors. Gone are such barriers as prohibitive set-up costs and minimum print run orders. Single-unit production on an as needed basis opens up viable markets to content producers.
But wait, there’s more! It’s a feature that, geek that I am, I found absolutely cool: annotated text. By way of example, Caroline annotated a book that is fairly familiar to many individuals — the Bible. Actually, Genesis. Okay, the first sentence of Genesis.
Basically, the system allows users to highlight words or sentences or passages and create comments (which print like endnotes in the paper version). If you wanted to expound upon, for example, “In the beginning”, you could add your own notes about what this string of words means or the message behind them. Flip this around, and a blogger can include comments as part of his or her book. If you’ve ever been one to read what other cooks have to say before trying a new recipe — add more garlic, I found that 2 hours was too long, I cut the cooking time, modify this by adding blue cheese — then you can see the power of annotating and including other user-generated content.