Shake It Up, Baby! Web Services and the User-centric Digital Content Remix

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User-Added Value
When one of the oldest scholarly book publishers on the planet declares that the end of formal book and chapter structures may be in sight, publishers everywhere should take note. "It is realistic to assume that users will custom publish and purchase only content they want, and we are preparing ourselves for that day," says OUP's Podolsky. His upcoming platform "creates a subscription-based online product, or it can push content to wireless and handheld devices or license to third party databases," he says. "The current chapter-based model of books does not lend itself to this." 

More than simply making do-it-yourself cookbooks out of recipe bases, personal custom publishing will also mean users plugging their own thoughts into the content. Whether it is on blogs or personal ebook readers, which Podolsky thinks will finally see their day, "you will be able to social network or collaborate while reading a book, have conversations while reading, adding notes and sending them off." 

Ultimately, Abbott believes publishers will need to offer robust APIs via XML that let partners and perhaps even consumers not just capture feeds but drill into publishers' core data sets, program their own interfaces, and repurpose your data as they like. "I could pull all articles ever published from the on Cleveland," says Abbott. RSS feeds defined by traditional content sections or editors are not enough. "There is no way to know how any slice of your information could be culled by partners and consumers," and that value is discovered only by letting users find new value in your content. He calls them Value-Added End Users (VAEU). "Think of these users as evangelists who want to tap into your IT power. Let them get on the grid, and who knows what value they can add to your company."

"The point is to bring the content into different contexts," says O'Reilly. An API into his Safari library actually integrates his books into online help systems in some Microsoft software development environments. This arrangement is at the bleeding edge of a future where not only applications but things pull in contextually relevant information. Scanning a grocery package with a camera phone could call in comparative pricing and recommendations for multiple publishers, requiring just-in-time data that behaves like a utility, water or electricity always on tap for any use. "We will be in a world that ups the information content of objects," says O'Reilly.

Content by the Ounce? 
While it may sound like a user ideal, plug and play ups the anxiety level of business owners; even its acolytes are unsure whether publishing fortunes will get made or broken. "It's going to be a challenge," admits O'Reilly. Divorcing content from the original site-centric business may move all of us to the lower yields of an iTunes economy where users pay only for pieces they want. However, defenders of the model argue that fragmenting content also exploits the "long tail" effect by surfacing and monetizing shards of content that were undervalued in print distribution. Rayhill points to specific articles in otherwise outdated books that remain valuable in O'Reilly's library. Tagging and flexible delivery "allows our content to be viable at the end of the tail," he says. 

For the most part, the vast majority of publishers are not even close to embracing on-demand technologies or businesses, admits Spenhoff. "The kinds of events that would really cause them to sharply address this are only starting to happen as they see competitive pressures of the Internet force them to provide high value in the content experience." 

Ultimately, the perfect on-demand economy is so finely attuned and responsive to user needs, it produces an efficient stream of in-demand content with no filler. Offering an eerie glimpse into our future, O'Reilly is introducing tools for qualified subscribers to watch and respond to tech books as they are being written in an online wiki. In this model of complete market efficiency, information is not a product, but a kind of "flow," a real-time stream informed by user-demand at every point. As O'Reilly muses, "You have the possibility of content becoming more like a wave, a momentum."

Psst, Toto: we're not in Kansas anymore. Publishers: your content needs to be ready to take some twists and go some unexpected places.

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