The Web Came For Books

In 1998, when I began working there, BN.com had 900,000 titles in its database for sale - representing the entire availability of books at that time.

Bowker reports there are over 38 million ISBNs in its database now. There are some caveats to this: some of these ISBNs don’t represent viable products, some are assigned to chapters rather than whole books…however, there are also a sizeable number of books (via Smashwords, Kindle, and other platforms) that never make it into Books in Print. We don’t know if this evens things out, or if 38 million is the minimum number of books available in the US market today.

That’s over a 4000% increase.

Further complicating this scenario, we are living in a world where the content is born digitally. It can be produced and consumed rapidly, which is why there is so much of it, and why there is only going to be more of it. Lots and lots of information and entertainment. Lots and lots of, essentially, data.

Nothing ever goes away anymore.

Another factor is that the internet provides a persistence even to physical objects. With the web, nothing goes away, even physical objects – they only accumulate (on eBay, in vintage shops, and in libraries). They accumulate and accumulate. And books are very much a part of this accumulation. We don’t order books out of paper catalogs anymore. We order books off the web.

And, in many cases, we order books that ARE websites – packaged into…ePub files.

We now have 38 million books to choose from. We also order music and movies over the web – and we do frequently don’t see a physical medium for most of these things. Physical media get scratched, damaged, lost, borrowed and never returned. But digital is forever, and there’s a freaking lot of it.

At some point (and remember, we’re in a world of rapid development, explosion of content, and ever-more-sophisticated ways of consuming it – so “at some point” could actually be sooner than we think it ought to be), search engines and online catalogs go one step further than asking publishers (and other manufacturers) for product metadata in a separate (e.g. ONIX) feed. They are increasingly going to want to derive that metadata (and more detailed metadata) directly from the file representing that product itself. In our case, the EPUB file - a “website in a box”.

This means that publishers are not only going to have to get good at creating and maintaining metadata at a pace that can sustain a 3000% increase over 18 years (so vastly more products to keep track of), they are going to have to get good at doing this inside the book file itself, which means not only grappling with markup language, but treating the EPUB file as a (really long) web page.

And at volumes that are unprecedented – because (a) publishing is easier than it has ever been before and (b) no book published now ever goes away.

This kind of rapid development doesn’t just change your workflow – it changes what and how you publish. And the more publishers understand about the web, the more likely they are to survive.

This is a different kind of survival than just holding on through a bad time, waiting out an economic downturn. This is survival that depends on evolution. On change. On new skills and abilities and ways of looking at things – while keeping in mind where we have come from and how we got here.

Let’s go back to the problem of content proliferation. How are we going to manage it, organize it, feed the search engines in ways that they understand so that normal people who think Google is magic can actually find it, discern it, and read it?

We impose a structure on it. We take that mess and organize the hell out of it. And yes, it has to be us - the book industry.

The search engine industry doesn’t really care what results they display. Books are no more important to a search engine than anything else – it’s all data. If we want to make the search engine work for us, we have to engage it. We have to understand how it searches, what’s most effective on it. Just as the industry worked very hard in the 1990s to understand superstores and how they displayed books and what co-op could get us, so must we understand storefront of search.

In an age of this much abundance, it’s not enough to simply create a thing and then offer it for sale on the web. We have to understand how the market works. And the market revolves around search.

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