Thursday, May 18, 2006

Dueling Authors: Web 2.0 and the Future of Publishing at BookExpo 2006

It was an honor to speak at this year's BookExpo in Washington, DC today on a program entitled "The 2.0 Revolution: Seizing the Web's New Realities." This was a series of hour-long presentations from myself, Don Tapscott, President of New Paradigm Learning Corporation, Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine and Carly Fiorina, former Chairman & CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I wasn't able to stay for Carly Fiorina's presentation but I was very glad to hear Don Tapscott speak and to hear Chris' take on the transformation of his "Long Tail" weblog into a business book - my second time listening to his presentations this week, though this one was unique. Don is an amazing font of insights into what makes business and markets tick, generating long-lived memes such as "Paradigm Shift," "The Digital Economy," "Digital Capital" and the more recently coined "Wikinomics."

Don provided a far-ranging talk on trends inspiring and growing out of the Web 2.0 movement, showing how the plethora of information appliances, mushrooming bandwidth, geo-mobility and multimedia sources have combined in open and self-organizing content services. Don showed some neat comparative performance charts from Alexa, showing how the growth of self-organizing Flikr now outpaces the pioneering Webshots service, Wikipedia flattening the flatlining Britannica, Blogger now eking out CNN.com and so on. These Web 2.0 winners are riding on the backs of digital natives, the children of post WWII "baby boomers" who were born to PCs, collaborative gaming and online communications and who will fuel the economy of the next few decades. The result is what Don calls "Marketing at the Instant of Truth," mining micro-relationships in an increasingly transparent marketplace that places a premium on collaborative relationships. These concepts Don markets in his well-received business books, which have packaged major trends to the needs of leading executives for decades.

By contrast Chris finds himself pumping out his first business book under decidedly unique conditions. From a slide buried deep in a presentation deck to the most popular online story ever posted by Wired Magazine to a weblog that was used as an online community to evolve his Long Tail concept more fully, Chris has positioned himself in the somewhat untenable position of being the first person to try to evolve a Web 2.0 publication into the output of a mainstream publisher. Chris pointed out in his presentation that although the weblog has been instrumental in developing the book there is a wealth of new materials: less then five percent of the words used in the book overlap with the weblog, about half of the ideas and - surprisingly - the book has about half of the total text posted on the weblog. People may be likely to trash Chris' concepts if the book takes a dive, yet ironically if it does have problems selling it would probably be a great example of how The Long Tail and Web 2.0 can work together. The issue isn't whether the book is a hit but rather whether the total revenues that he can generate from publishing and other activities are going to have been worth its publishing.

As for the book itself, I had a little time to examine an advance copy on the train back home. It's been positioned with the subtitle "Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More." The book is relatively short, which is oftentimes considered a virtue in trend-oriented books oriented towards senior executives. It's a well-written book, but it's interesting to see how the shape of Chris' ideas and presentations was changed in their conversion into book form from his original trend-setting insights backed by excellent statistical analysis of marketing and sales data. Much of the trimming and adding has made his concepts more accessible to general audiences. In the process of making it accessible and applicable to a wider array of business conditions, some of the edge from Chris' original efforts has been lost - a factor that may bode well for volume sales when it's released, but it will also mean less valuable content available in book format once sales settle down after its initial sales.

What may help to mitigate this problem is Chris' diligent upkeep of his weblog on The Long Tail. It's kept his meme in play on Web sites linking to his weblog and may act as a resource for executives that want to dig deeper into the concept via the weblogs' deeper materials and discussions. These two factors are likely to help boost book sales in the long run, even if initial sales fall short of expectations. Whatever the sales of this first print run, it would be wrong to declare the book a success until the Long Tail concepts that he has offered have been proven out by the measurements of its sales over a fairly long period of time. In the meantime whatever doubters of the power of The Long Tail that are out there should retune their analysis to measure the total return on publishing from Chris' book instead of looking just at print title sales.
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